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A travel group report says flying is safe. The doctor whose research it cited says not so fast.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global airline trade group representing 290 carriers in 120 countries, published a report this month aiming to reassure grounded travelers about the future of flying. The group collected medical journal data on in-flight coronavirus cases and used it to declare that commercial flights have a “low incidence of inflight COVID-19 transmission” when masks are worn.



(Illustration by Woody Harrington for The Washington Post)


(Illustration by Woody Harrington for The Washington Post)

Following an abundance of new research, the report says, only 44 cases of coronavirus have been linked to a flight, during a period when 1.2 billion passengers traveled.

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But a doctor whose work was cited in the report says that the group is misrepresenting his findings by only counting proven flight-linked cases that were published in medical journals.

“IATA is taking it to an extreme saying there’s ‘little’ risk in flying,” says David Freedman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama whose February 2020 study is cited in the IATA report. “What they want is to throw this number on the risk of flying … and we don’t know what that risk is yet. I’m not saying the risk is high, but there is some risk. It just looks like masks help a lot.”

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The bottom line, Freedman says, is that cases linked to air travel are very difficult to scientifically prove because passengers are not usually monitored after flying and therefore are not tallied if they become sick. It’s also nearly impossible to determine whether sick passengers picked up the virus on a plane as opposed to in an airport or on the way there, he says. “And if you can’t prove it, it doesn’t end up in a journal.”

A more recent study of Freedman’s, published in September 2020, says “the absence of large numbers of published in-flight transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 is not definitive evidence of safety.”

While an abundance of in-flight research on covid-19 has recently come to light, Freedman is not alone in his assessment that it’s unclear if flying is a low-risk endeavor amid the pandemic.

Brad Pollock, the associate dean of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis, agrees with Freedman’s assessment of IATA’s report, calling it an “overreach.” Studies do not account for unpredictable passengers who board planes every day, he says.

“There’s movement in the cabin to consider, but also so many people improperly wear a mask below their nostrils,” Pollock says. “That’s more of an issue than what kind of mask they’re wearing. If everyone wears their mask properly on the plane, we’re going to be much better off.”

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nearly 11,000 people have been potentially exposed to the coronavirus on flights. The CDC told The Washington Post that of those in-flight exposures, “an absence of cases identified or reported is not evidence that there were no cases.” On Monday,

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