Low transmission risk on board aircraft, says IATA

IATA’s states reasons for leaving middle seats available

IATA's director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac: "In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence." Credit: IATA

WORLDWIDE - The International Air Transport Association (IATA) upholds the use of middle seats in passenger aircraft as it stated that evidence, although limited, suggests that the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures. It cited the following information:

•    Contact tracing for a flight from China to Canada with a symptomatic COVID-19 passenger revealed no onboard transmission
•    Contact tracing for a flight between China and the US with 12 symptomatic COVID-19 passengers revealed no onboard transmission
•    Communication with IATA member airlines indicates similar results:

- An IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines identified, during January-March 2020, only three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of COVID-19, all from passengers to crew. A further four episodes were reports of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot, which could have been in-flight or before/after (including layover). There were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission.

- A detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers (January to March 2020) who were confirmed for COVID-19 after air travel revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers in the same group of flight. Just two possible cases were found amongst crew members.

IATA believes there are several reasons why COVID-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission, and is different from other modes of public transport:

•    Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions
•    Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin
•    Air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission in the cabin, moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments
•    High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.

It said that restricting the use of the middle seat will not provide the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective as most health authorities recommend 1-2 m while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.

IATA's director general and CEO, Mr Alexandre de Juniac, said: "The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little evidence of onboard transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not."

He added: "…we must be ready with a series of proven measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of inflight transmission. And we must be careful not to hard-wire any solution so we can be quick in adopting more efficient measures as they will undoubtedly become available."