One Change Could Cut The Spread Of Viruses On Planes By Half

Four years ago Boeing introduced self-cleaning lavatories. Two years ago Recaro announced a self-sanitizing business class seat. Until coronavirus though some airlines were more interested in on-time departures than cleanliness.

Now we’re worried about how well cleaned planes are. We might pick up the new coronavirus from surfaces, though most transmission is thought to happen from respiratory droplets. Blocked middle seats does nothing to protect someone in an aisle seat from the person in the aisle beside them – or the passenger behind them.

Airlines filter air effectively (though small regional jets may not have HEPA filters), but respiratory droplets may infect someone before being filtered. In 2003 22 SARS cases are thought to have come from a Boeing 737 flight from Hong Kong to Beijing.

The researchers found that the risk for those in the three rows in front of the man, or the same row, was much higher than for those sitting elsewhere. But two people seated as far as seven rows in front of him were also infected, as were two flight attendants. Five passengers later died.

People moving around or touching surfaces may have played a role, or the virus may have floated in the air for longer than expected, the researchers concluded.

Other researchers have argued that a virus spread by respiratory droplets would be “limited to one row in front of or in back of an infectious passenger.” A Purdue-Boeing study, though, found:

  • Flight duration and distance mattered for likelihood of transmission
  • Changing air flow – “having air flow into the cabin from near the floor rather than from above” – would cut transmission risk in half

This is similar to how restaurant air conditioning is thought to spread the virus. Changing air flow on a plane is no small task. And even so if the passenger sitting a row behind you sneezes, neither air flow nor filtration changes will help.

In the meantime since the new coronavirus can spread through feces, I’ll be avoiding using the lavatory on planes, in airports, and other public places – at least until Boeing’s Fresh Lav gains widespread adoption.

Fume events and unsanitary tank water are also important health issues in aviation alongside sanitization – but those likely won’t get attention unfortunately.

(HT: Tyler K.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Most planes have HEPA filters that match what’s recommended in hospitals where COVID-19 patients are being treated. Most virus particles are going to be filtered out. And air flow on board doesn’t travel throughout the entire passenger cabin. (One study contradicts this, suggesting that in 2003 22 SARS cases are thought to have come from a Boeing 737 flight from Hong Kong to Beijing..) […]


  1. “since the new coronavirus can spread through feces, I’ll be avoiding using the lavatory on planes, in airports, and other public places”

    Or you know, use the facilities…and then wash your hands properly afterwards.

  2. Wearing an N95 through the whole flight, sanitizing everything around you, avoiding trips to the lavatory if possible, and regularly using hand sanitizer on the plane will certainly help! Once you disembark, then wash your hands thoroughly.

  3. Reversing the air flow direction on planes means smelling everyone’s farts. No thanks. Just increase the air flow rate.

  4. I think the new ultra violet light machines that hospitals are beginning to use to clean as someone moves out of a room and bathrooms will take hold in the airline industry. Simply put they wheel the machine down and back through the isles providing a fairly intense path of killing germs/bacteria simply put. This after a time should not take all that long. In any event the number of flights will be reduced anyway, most people will more than happily wait a bit longer knowing there is some effective form of cleaning going on.

    Past that people are just going to have to continue personal hygiene. It is sometime disgusting to see bathrooms on a long haul flight no matter what class of cabin your in, other than a ME3 First

  5. Sounds like a great idea but does the self cleaning lav also wash urine from the floor? Even if it only disinfects it and leaves sticky urine on the floor, that is better.

  6. Hello everybody. There is a much simpler solution. Test everybody with the rapid result test before boarding! Then if someone happens to sneeze or cough you know its not CoVid-19.
    Yes it will be expensive and time consuming, so what? If you don’t want to be tested STAY HOME.
    And, of course, touch nothing and don’t linger in the airport too long…

  7. liz: Would you require the same daily tests from all the pilots, flight attendants, grocery store clerks, etc.? Are you sure that all medical staff are also tested daily? Are we planning for kids not going to school for another year?
    Perhaps, the easiest thing is simply to take the risk as FAs do on each and every flight. I have been flying 150K-200K miles for the last ca. 10 years. Personally, I cannot trace/suspect even a single flight for me getting cold/flu.

  8. @ Alex Yes, I would expect pilots, flight attendants, and airport personnel be tested as well. Of course this does not apply to grocery store clerks and school children or any other environments where people are not seated in a flying tube with recirculated air and near to worthless air filters.
    And as far as catching colds while flying I am happy you are immune.
    I have been flying extensively especially internationally, and 8 out of 10 times I come back with a cold or some other virus I catch while flying. This despite that fact that I have been always disinfecting my seat with disinfecting wipes and orient the air vent toward my face even before CoVid. Not everybody has a great immunity like you.

  9. @Liz
    Great idea, too bad it doesn’t exist yet. Tests require several hours minimum.

  10. @Liz
    Unfortunately, people are contagious while asymptomatic so testing even right before boarding won’t catch those. And it appears a huge number of people are infected but are either asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

  11. @DvE, I think being asymptomatic doesn’t mean you wouldn’t test positive. Asymptomatic just means you have the disease, but you’re not exhibiting symptoms. If you have the disease, you’d test positive for it as often as the test is reliable.

  12. Right so the TSA will be responsible for testing, troubleshooting, maintaining the equipment. How reliable will that be? If the unit crashes, does that mean the flight gets delayed until fixed and if that happens will the airline be responsible for rebooking missed flights? How about false positives? If a person does test positive are the airlines going to put you on a no fly list? If they do can you imagine the nightmare that will turn into?

    Just put on full face masks that are disposable at end of the flight. May as well, since all airlines are requiring masks and cutting food and drink services. Does that mean Business and First also? (Doubtful)

    Since I will bring my own food and drink onboard now, will there be a eating time when I can have my mask down or will the police on the plane force me to put my mask up between bites.

    One thing is for sure, prices are going way up and car driving is going to become a lot more popular.

    For an issue that has been blown out of proportion by everyone, especially the media, our economy is going to bear the brunt of this.

  13. @Liz,

    There is an easier, way less expensive and time consuming method to this madness. If you are worried about contracting it (or any of a myriad of other ailments you could catch, jetting around the world) , simply don’t fly.

    The rest of us need to feed our families and pay our mortgages.

  14. These times actually make me think about how we have these paroxysms of cleanliness that seem to give the most germophobic among an excuse to say:: “I told you so!”
    Come on, within the last year, innumerable times, we all been in confined spaces, airplanes, elevators, buses, etc.
    We have periodic novel infectious agents of different kinds that affect our most vulnerable.
    Sometimes it feels like some believe we should live in hermetically sealed outfits for the foreseeable future “just in case.”

  15. Oh please. People saying if you don’t like risks don’t fly are like people who say if you don’t like the way Gary writes, stop reading his blog. I comment on Gary’s writing because I value what he writes and I want it to be even better. @Liz made a suggestion, Dubai already does something like this and theoretically with advances in testing it could work. Clearly since she does seem to get colds a lot it’s not like she doesn’t understand the risk.

  16. Unfortunately , older people like me cannot mange a flight longer than 3 hours without using the toilet , so washing hands and not touching surfaces in the toilet ( or using a fresh tissue to open the door and turn on the tap, will be the best approach for me .

  17. @Kevin “The rest of us need to feed our families and pay our mortgages.”

    Exactly! And you can’t do either if you’re dead or gravely ill.

  18. Hey. To all the skeptical out there. Just today I found an article on Reuters that the Vienna airport has made available CoVid-19 testing prior to boarding for both incoming and outgoing flights. It’s on a voluntary basis, takes 3 hours to get results, and costs $209. This allows one to avoid the 14 day quarantine upon arrival.
    Clearly it’s not for everyone. But if you have to fly internationally and have the means, why not?
    I advocated testing in my earlier comment and was criticized by quite a few. But as everyone can see it’s not such a crazy idea after all!

  19. @Andy Shuman,

    “Exactly! And you can’t do either if you’re dead or gravely ill.”

    Please stop the fear mongering. Good grief. You’re probably more likely to die in a plane crash, then you are dying from Covid. And you MOST DEFINITELY are more likely to die on the way to the airport. Stay inside, in a plastic bubble if you’re that scared.

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