The coronavirus pandemic is largely responsible for the huge drop in the number of air travelers this year versus 2019’s high numbers. Fear of small, enclosed spaces – which seem to facilitate spread of the coronavirus among people – has played a big role in keeping air travelers on the ground and out of planes. Recent reports, though, indicate that airline workers such as flight attendants have lower rates of coronavirus than the general population, meaning air carriers’ safety protocols may be effective and that flying is safer than we’d initially assumed.
Early Safety Steps
Airlines as well as the Transportation Security Administration – which has also seen low rates of infection among its workers – both took early and aggressive steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These measures seem to have paid off, too, as airline CEOs and various carrier labor groups are now pointing out. Flight attendants and other airline workers have had lower infection rates than other populations, in fact, and it’s a sign that anti-infection practices put in place by air carriers are paying off, the carriers and their workers point out.
Worker Infection Rates
Data provided by the Association of Flight attendants for not only their members but also other unionized and nonunionized airline workers does show a lower COVID-19 infection rate. Out of 122,000 flight attendants total, just a little over 1,000 or 0.8% have tested positive for the coronavirus versus about 2% of the general population.
Early adoption of anti-coronavirus safety measures by airports, airlines and the TSA, including social distancing, mask wear, sanitizing of contact surfaces and touchless passenger screening, seem to be at least partly responsible for lower infection rates. Every major US airline, for example, requires all passengers and crew to wear masks on board, and the same holds true for airports and TSA, both of which require mask wear of passengers and workers. Many airlines now put their planes through thorough sanitization and cleaning after every flight, including use of disinfectants and electrostatic sprayers, both of which are proven effective antiviral measures.
Air carriers have also looked specifically at their planes, including reconfiguring the airflow within them to make it more difficult for germs and viruses to spread between passengers. Airliners are also equipped with high-efficiency particulate air filters which trap 99.9% of all germs, including COVID-19. Far fewer particles in the air than normal means a noticeably lower risk of infection, airline leaders point out.
Travel Rebound Hopes
Both airlines and the Transportation Security Administration have been hit hard by COVID-19’s various negative health and even fiscal effects. TSA, for example, has seen its passenger screening numbers decline from 2-plus million daily on average to well under a million and with the typically slow fall travel season now underway a return to robust passenger counts seems unlikely anytime soon. Add in that air travelers still continue to fear flying to destinations with possibly higher coronavirus rates than home and it’s easy to see why far fewer passengers than normal are being security screened and then flying.
Overall, air travel is also still down about 70% over 2019’s numbers. However, if current data on airline worker infection rates proves out it’s even more proof that airports, airlines and TSA, at least, have figured out how to make flying safer from a health perspective than it’s ever been.
Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.