A sign reminds travelers to wear face covers at an American Airlines Group Inc. gate at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, United States on Thursday, October 1, 2020. Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Experts are giving mixed messages on the Covid-19 risks of air travel as Americans ponder their Thanksgiving vacation plans.

A Harvard University study published Tuesday modeled airflow in commercial aircraft and said the special ventilation systems on board filter out 99% of the viruses in the air.

The team of scientists concluded that a “multi-layered approach with gate-to-gate ventilation reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission on board aircraft among other routine activities during the pandemic such as grocery shopping or eating out”.

A contract tracking study published by Irish researchers linked 13 cases to a single passenger on a seven-hour international flight this summer with fewer than one seat in five occupied. Some passengers may not have been wearing masks.

The researchers conclude that some of the spread must have occurred on the plane because some of the passengers “had no connection to the social or airport lounge with Groups 1 or 2 before the flight and were not sitting in two rows of them”.

The Harvard researchers described the wearing of masks as a crucial part of the safety of travelers in airplane cabins, but no longer called for a state mask mandate on board flights. But more research needs to be done with people congregating in jetways, corridors, and airports – where ventilation systems may not be as efficient as in airplanes.

Harvard’s findings mirror the findings of recent studies by the Department of Defense, Boeing and Airbus, as airlines struggle to bring domestic passenger traffic above 40 percent year-on-year levels.

Last week, Southwest Airlines cited the earlier studies as a reason to resume sales of every seat on its flights from December 1st.


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