Fact-check: Is it safe to fly? Southwest CEO say yes, medical experts not so keen

Reporter: Amanda Hall
Published: Updated:

We’re all going a little stir crazy these days and with things opening back up, you might be thinking about booking a summer trip.

Some airlines are making big statements about safety, so before you pack your bags, make sure you check the facts.

Your next flight, whenever that may be, won’t be what you’re used to. Where we sit and how we board will be different.

We caught up with passengers on a flight coming into Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW).

“They loaded the plane from the back instead of from the front, so then you don’t have to walk past all the people,” said one passenger.

All the major U.S. airlines have announced efforts to deep-disinfect and sanitize, and limit the number of passengers on flights or block out middle seats.

If you ask the head of Southwest Airlines, you’re not any more at risk of getting the coronavirus on a plane.

“I don’t think the risk on an airplane is any greater risk than anywhere else, and in fact, you just look at the layered approach that we use. It’s as safe as an environment as you’re going to find,” said Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly.

The idea that a plane is as safe an environment as your office or your home doesn’t fly with medical experts. For that, PolitiFact rates the CEO’s statement as mostly false.

In the simplest of terms, you have less control over social distancing on airplanes than in other spaces.

When you’re home, you can limit who comes in. In the grocery store, you can walk away from other people. On an airplane, not so much.

“Compared to more cramped and less ventilated settings like subways and buses, the risks of getting sick on an airplane are lower overall — though you still face risk from whatever infections the people in your row may be carrying,” wrote Rachel Vreeman in an email. She is the director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.

The longer average length of time passengers spend on airplanes versus mass transit could also make it less safe, Vreeman added.

When asked for proof that planes are as safe a place as anywhere else, Southwest outlined the steps they’re taking to protect employees and passengers.

“We’re using hospital quality disinfectants, HEPA air filters to make sure that the air is- is properly filtered and clean,” Kelly said.

Research shows strong ventilation systems do filter out virus particles, but tiny droplets called aerosols can hang in the air for three to four minutes before being sucked up by the ventilation system.

The above visualization from Purdue University shows how droplets from a single cough flow through the cabin of a Boeing.

“I really wish they told everybody they have to wear a mask,” said another passenger we talked to.

Some airlines are requiring masks and social distancing, though days after United announced its efforts to spread people out, a photo of a packed flight went viral.

Given all of that, is it safe to fly? The medical experts interviewed for this fact-check said it could be reasonably safe if middle seats are eliminated and every passenger and crew member wears a mask.

They also suggested that passengers wipe down the surfaces around them and wash their hands, but said there would still be a risk.

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