Over a billion people have flown so far in 2020. Flying seems to be incredibly safe in the Covid era. There are flights where virus transmission is believed to have occurred, but it’s very few. Sure, contact tracing may be limited. At the same time no illness has been so carefully studied so quickly. HEPA air filters, regular refresh of cabin air, and air flown downwards seem to prevent most potential spread.
When there are cases of possible virus spread during travel it’s often not clear whether the spread happened on the plane – or in airport. That matters because it could focus on the right protective measures to take to reduce spread even further. While planes themselves, inflight or with their auxiliary power on, may be one of the safest indoor areas (certainly compared to restaurants, gyms, theaters) airports are indoors too.
A Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Dublin had 13 people on board test positive for the virus, and tracing linked those cases to further spread which gets to the 59 figure.
It isn’t surprising that there were several people with the virus on a Qatar flight. Gulf carriers have brought numerous Covid-positive passengers from South Asia around the world, and the nation of Qatar itself has among the highest per capita reported infection rates in the world. (This has largely been confined to its migrant worker population.)
Passengers on the flight with the virus weren’t sitting near each other. Most of the passengers were reportedly masked. However it’s not clear when each person became infected,
One group of cases reported spending up to 12 hours overnight in the transit lounge during stopover; another shared a separate transit lounge; while two other groups had separate short waits of under two hours in the general airport departure area.
Genome sequencing was done on only 5 samples showing that the viruses were linked. Even that doesn’t show the infections happened on the plane. The paper acknowledges the possibility of spread from close household contact, as well as “during overnight transfer/pre-flight or unknown acquisition before the flight.” Yet the study concludes it “is one of few thus far demonstrating in-flight transmission of SARS-CoV-2 with extensive onwards transmission.” Except it hasn’t demonstrated that at all. Doing so is hard.
While inflight transmission seems to be rare, it certainly isn’t impossible, and someone with a high viral load and lots of shedding may overcome the best precautions. The virus might spread at security, in a lounge, at the gate area, or simply transiting the terminal. It could spread on the jetway as well. Flying is safe, but not totally safe. In many ways, just like going to the grocery store.