Why Social Distancing On Planes Matters Less Than You Think

Airlines are engaged in hygiene theater, cleaning surfaces and promoting electrostatic spraying. I appreciate the cleanliness and hope it sticks around after the pandemic. But the CDC and other research suggests surfaces aren’t a key vector of Covid-19 spread.

Social distancing guidance was based on the idea that large respiratory droplets are the primary way that the virus spreads, and those droplets fall to the ground quickly, so staying six feet apart from others is a good prophylactic. Masks help with large droplets.

However increasingly researchers are concerned with aerosolized spread or airborne transmission, which means that smaller particles of the virus are traveling further and staying in the air longer. And to address this, distance is less important than ventilation and filtration. And aircraft refreshing cabin air every few minutes and HEPA air filters which capture most virus particles are the best mechanism to protect against this.

In other words it just so happens that the mechanisms airlines have had in place even before the pandemic turn out to be the best measures to protect against Covid-19. That isn’t to say the virus will never spread on a plane, with as many flights a day and as many passengers a day travel worldwide (even with far fewer flights and passengers than before the pandemic) it’s almost certain to happen sometime. But being on a plane is one of the safest indoor environments possible. The airport terminal, indoors and without the same ventilation and filtration, is another matter.

Cleaning is still worth doing, even if virus spread via surfaces isn’t as significant as once thought or as much of a spread vector as aerosols, it can still reduce transmission. And sitting next to someone shedding the virus for hours on end still represents real risk, though remains statistically unlikely to spread Covid-19. However if the main mechanism of virus transmissions is aerosols as many increasingly think then social distancing doesn’t help – but air filtration does.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. But is that awesome ventilation system working while the plane is on the ground? I’ve been in many planes that got warm and stuffy before the door was shut.

  2. People don’t seem to understand the concept of risk being additive…it is like when they say “Skydiving is less dangerous than driving a car”. Well, if you interchange them one for one, perhaps on some normalized basis. But if one goes skydiving, that is generally supplanting time spent in an otherwise less risky activity. Similarly, sure, maybe flying is less risky than running maskless through an ICU taking big deep breaths of the air, but it certainly is riskier on the margin than if the same time were spent at home or going for a walk in the countryside.

  3. MIT has a study where keeping middle seats empty was a significant factor in reducing the risk by nearly 50%. I believe the actual number was 1.8 or 45%.

    You seem to fixate on certain things and are incapable of moving on or admitting you are wrong. Kind of like trump.

  4. I’ve flown to twelve states in the past two months and I guess this explains why I’m not dead.

  5. I like this post as a manifesto for where you stand at the moment and how the conventional wisdom has been warped. Still, though, in these times, I don’t spend 3 hours adjacent to the same group of people by choice, period.

    Additionally, air travel plays a key role in moving people from high-infection places to low-infection ones.

    These are the reasons air travel is not a viable — or endorsable — business at the moment.

  6. I keep telling you people to buy an airplane.
    I’m not sure what part of “oh, I’ll be flying private” you wouldn’t like to use to snub your friends and be branded an a**hole.
    Gary’s blog is hanging on by a thread if everyone flies private.

    Second mortgage on the house should pay for the plane and private license.

  7. @Rich – I link to a discussion of that study in the post, the bottom line of the study really was ‘it’s very unlikely to catch covid on a plane’

  8. @Adam Guillette “Also, Rich sounds like he’s a lot of fun at parties.”

    I’m sure he is, if you like smart people at your parties. On the other hand, if you like to party with doofus bros, I’m sure Adam Guillette is a blast!

  9. And sometimes people abuse drugs multiple times and are still alive. Doesn’t mean it was smart. And doesn’t mean it won’t catch up to them later.

    And dying is still a low probably event from the virus. I’ve known 2 who are dead from it. And 4 others who were only sick for a few weeks.

    And others are sick for many weeks even if young. I may fly soon but only due to relocation and not for pleasure.

  10. “You seem to fixate on certain things and are incapable of moving on or admitting you are wrong.”

    And others such as yourself are fixated on stories that show the sky is falling, incapable of admitting that experts with data contrary to your beliefs might have a point. Believe what you want. But stop playing holier than thou.

  11. It’s a difficult problem. The economy needs to move, but we need to keep people safe. Which do we choose? Finding that perfect balance I think will be too difficult as some will err on the side of caution while other will just do the money grab. We always need to put out truthful and honest information.

  12. Nobody here is an expert in epidemiology. So everything should be taken with several grains of salt.

    There has always been the assumption that air travel presents a higher risk of contracting colds and other illnesses. Colds are viruses.

    There is the case of Air China Flight 112 in March 2003. The 737-800 with 120 passengers flew from Hong Kong to Beijing, about a three hour fight. One passenger in economy had SARS. Within eight days 20 other passengers and two flight attendants also contracted SARS. Hmm!

    I’m not saying one way other the other because I’m not qualified to give a credible opinion on this. Listen to those who are qualified by training and experience. While some things like the benefits of wearing masks are widely accepted, even the experts say much about Covid-19 and its spread remains unknown.

  13. Given that HEPA filters on planes seem to reduce aerosol transmission, I am wondering how feasible it is to install such things on other public transportation (or even commercial buildings in some cases). Even in a post-covid world, this should have a significant effect on the transmission of airborne diseases, be it just the flu or possibly whatever the next (inevitable) new infectious disease ends up being.

  14. Its soo odd that I come here and hear claims about how safe air travel is and then I go and read comments by you know, actual medical experts, and they say there are certainly risks with flying and the longer those flights the higher the risks. Planes are considered a moderate risk. You are safer going to a grocery store because you are not in an enclosed space with people from who knows where for hours on end. The air filtration isn’t going to clear all the virus particles, especially if there is an infected person in your vicinity. Not to mention you aren’t magically teleported to your plane seat. You have to go through airports on both ends, including lines etc. Really unless its essential travel now is not the time to be talking about getting on planes.

  15. Just straight astroturfing here. We know tight, indoor spaces are bad and we know that people don’t follow protocol. Ideal conditions and behavior don’t stop a virus because humans aren’t ideal acting creatures

  16. There might be something to this. I have not heard many flight attendants testing positive for covid.

  17. @john

    So who is an expert? Spreads on surfaces or not? Don’t wear masks, wear masks, masks are mandatory. Social distancing 6 feet or not? What do we (or “they”) know?

  18. Really be careful about your Unscientific opinion and conclusions. Peoples lives are at stake and casual conclusions are part of why it’s estimated 300,000 Americans will be dead by December

  19. I don’t care how good the aircraft’s ventilation and filtering system is. It won’t help me if the person next to me coughs or sneezes. The water droplets and/or aerosols will reach me before they pass through the HEPA filter.

  20. I sent your article to several newspapers so they can be advised of your dangerous propaganda. Also sending to health organizations. I sent them copies of the post. U sure you’re not on Trumps payroll?

  21. @John Miller, It is easier to tell who is not an expert. The people I’d listen to are those who have the best education, training and experience in the field of epidemiology. Even those folks disagree on some things unfortunately. So its up to each of us to get the best information we can and evaluate things in light of our individual circumstances.

    Potential consequences of contracting Covid-19 include serious illness or death for the traveler and those the traveler interacts with. It takes a lot of confidence to say anything that might encourage people to assume that risk even if it is small. On the other hand, I wouldn’t tell someone they shouldn’t fly. Its a personal decision.

    Like the saying goes: “You pays your money, and you takes your chances.” Or don’t. I will say from personal experience that being unable to get sufficient breath into your lungs is scary. I hope everyone stays as safe and healthy as possible.

  22. This borders on wishful thinking at best and general deceit at worst. At least you recognize the risk of aerosol transmission, after how many months of aerosol virus spread. There aren’t many studies of covid spread on planes because there haven’t been many studies of covid spread on planes. Once there are sufficient studies to ascertain the risk, then there will be ample studies show spread on planes. Just who do you think is going to conduct those studies by the way? The airlines? Doubtful. TSA? They’re busy patrolling our streets.
    Filtration on planes is not some panacea. It is not even a good stage prop for your hygiene theatre.
    First, airplane air isn’t “refreshed” once pressureized it is in fact just recirculated, that is why they filter it to begin with. The filtering isn’t designed to limit virus spread in a pandemic, it might be modified to do this, but no one is talking about how to do this at this point. It is more like, well some filtration is better than none right? Like some distancing is better than none right? except you can’t distance on a plane very well can you? and you can’t very effectively filter large volumes of air, like in a cabin of an airplane, while recirculating the entire airmass for the whole time of the flight, for a packed airplane. It may not be impossible, it is just impractical and no one is even suggesting that current filtration is anywhere close to being adequate to prevent virus spread on an airplane. It is just not. And it is unlikely it ever will be. that is why clean rooms use reverse pressure air flow systems. Try using that on an airplane.
    Masks aren’t 100% effective but they do work to some extent, so does social distancing to some extent in some settings. And so also, does quarantine which is like distancing and masking to the n’th degree isn’t it? So that is what we have that is effective right now. If you can figure out a way to do that on a plane, that would be great. Otherwise, how often do they change those filters again, and how do you know when a filter doesn’t have the capacity to filter 100% of cabin air even once on each flight; let alone repeatedly, continously, and completely. Anyone who has ever used a pool filter, or even an aquarium filter, knows how much continuous attention and maintanence they require even to provide basic use. Airplane filters aren’t designed to be virus pandemic stoppers on airplanes. Never were.

  23. @ Dr Mammothlover. I suspect 300,000 will die regardless and NOT in addition to previous years. Data will eventually show less deaths listed as being caused by cancer, heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia and flu.
    If you beat the numbers long enough they will submit.

  24. More than 5 million Americans are now flying every week. The media would LOVE to find airline COVID cases. Heck, in normal times, social media gives us bizarro “terrible” airline stories every day– which is a direct result of the odds that something bad will happen when lots of people engage in a somewhat stressful activity. If there are NO airline COVID cases despite the bloodlust to produce them, I think we can conclude that it’s pretty darn safe to fly during COVID. It’s probably due to the HEPA filters, but who knows. Most of what we actually know about COVID is due to data and not science (the science has so far been pretty lackluster, but we get tons of data). I don’t think I’d want to fly if I were 80 with several co-morbidities, but everyone else should just live their lives.

  25. @walter — Nice attempt to appear “reasonable,” but do you REALLY think nobody is looking for airline COVID cases? Do you have any understanding of US media? They would LOVE to report airline COVID cases. Frankly, I’m shocked we haven’t even seen a false airline COVID scare.
    Read what Frontier’s CEO just said about COVID. His airline employees are less likely than AVERAGE Americans to test positive for COVID! The overwhelming evidence is that air travel is NOT a high risk COVID activity, even if you want it to be one.

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