This Is How Much More Likely You Are to Catch Omicron on a Plane, Experts Say
The risk of catching COVID when traveling is much higher than it was before Omicron.
In 2020, most people had to cancel their vacation plans because of the COVID pandemic. But this year, travel has picked back up dramatically thanks to vaccinations and ongoing mask requirements. For the past two months, airports in the U.S. have seen upwards of two million passengers pass through each day, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). That's a sharp increase from the 500,000 to 900,000 air travelers seen each day at this same time last year. Unfortunately, a highly infectious new variant of the virus has raised new concerns about flying. Omicron has become the dominant variant in the U.S. in less than a month, now accounting for more than 73 percent of all infections in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Based on its dominance and spread, some experts are now warning that your risk of catching Omicron on a plane might be higher than you think.
Air travel has often been considered safer than other indoor activities like dining or shopping, because the air on planes is actually filtered very well, according to The New York Times. But David Powell, a physician and medical advisor at the International Air Transport Association, told Bloomberg that the new variant could significantly increase the risk of catching COVID during a flight compared to earlier stages of the pandemic.
"Whatever the risk was with Delta, we would have to assume the risk would be two to three times greater with Omicron, just as we've seen in other environments," Powell explained.
Per Insider, the air expert said that the biggest risk on an airplane itself is sitting next to someone who is sick. If there is someone close to you who is obviously ill, let the cabin crew know, Powell advised. The CDC says you should not travel if "you have been exposed to COVID-19, you are sick, or if you test positive for COVID-19."
But even during the Omicron surge, your risk of catching COVID is much higher in the airport than on an actual plane. According to Powell, roughly 50 percent of the airflow on a plane is fresh from outside and 50 percent is recirculated and HEPA-filtered, making it safe to breathe. This type of airflow isn't present in an airport.
"The requirements for airflows on board are much more stringent than they are for airport buildings generally," Powell said. In the airport "you've got much more random movement, much more potential for face-to-face contact, you've got generally reduced airflows. Airport ventilation rates are a 10th, maybe, of what they are on the airplane."
According to Powell, Omicron's increased transmission means that protection measures are more important than ever for those flying over the holidays. But the precautions themselves are the same ones that virus experts have been recommending throughout the pandemic: avoiding commonly touched surfaces, washing hands whenever possible, wearing masks at all times, and avoiding face-to-face contact with other passengers.
"The advice is the same, it's just that the relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or catching a bus has increased with Omicron," Powell told Bloomberg.
The use of masks of planes was recently called into question by some airline officials. During a December Senate hearing, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said he did not believe that masks add much in the air cabin environment—just a day before he tested positive for COVID himself. But Powell said that keeping your mask on at the airport and during your entire flight is still essential, especially amid Omicron's spread.
"In simple terms, two people masked have minimal transmission from one to the other," he said. "If one of you removes your mask, then that person's at greater risk of transmitting and at slightly greater risk of receiving. But if both of you remove then obviously, there's no barrier there and you can freely transmit one to the other."
Although the relative risk of catching COVID during a flight while Omicron dominates is higher for everyone, Powell said that unvaccinated passengers still have a much higher risk than those that are vaccinated. "The greatest protection you can give yourself is to be vaccinated and boosted," he noted.