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Study finds spread of coronavirus on an airplane is ‘minimal’

Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita and Charles Gerba, professor in the Department of Environmental Science at University of Arizona, discuss measures airlines are taking to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: If you are looking to travel over the holidays, be prepared to cozy up to fellow passengers. Southwest Airlines becoming the very latest airline to bring back the middle seat after months of blocking it out to maintain social distancing on planes. A lot of passengers concerned about just how safe it is to fly right now.

And our next guest is behind a new research out that shows that airlines are, in fact, taking the right measures. Charles Gerba is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. And he joins us today.

Professor Gerba, it's good to talk to you today. Let's start by talking about the research that you conducted. This was a live virus on an empty plane. Walk me through what, in fact, you did to determine just how safe it is for passengers.

CHARLES GERBA: Yeah, what we wanted to really do was to test different interventions that kill viruses using a live virus in an airplane. And what we did was actually put a virus that doesn't infect humans, of course, in an airplane in different locations on the seat, on the armrest, on the trays that come down to you, the overhead.

And the idea was to put the virus in all these different areas and then do different interventions to actually kill the virus. We picked the virus that was very hard to kill, much harder to kill than the COVID-19 virus because we wanted an extra margin of safety, knowing that if we could kill this virus, we would easily be able to kill the COVID-19 virus.

So and we looked at a different number of strategies, too. We looked at standard chemical spray disinfectants, new anti-viral surface coatings, electrostatic sprayers, which are much more encompassing to disinfect areas that had been used before.

And the idea was to look at all these different types of technologies so if resources weren't available everywhere in the world, or airlines might have options for different types of technologies they might want to use, they would have the assurance that they were working properly in aircraft to actually kill the COVID-19 virus.

AKIKO FUJITA: And we should point out, you conducted your research in partnership with Boeing. You're talking about these sanitation measures these airlines are already taking, so touch points and the ability, or the inability that your research found, for that virus to spread as a result of that.

What about just being crammed in with passengers? We're talking about Southwest bringing back the middle seat. United's already done it. American Airlines has done it. It just feels uncomfortable at a time when we've been told for six, seven months that you're not supposed to be in close contact with somebody, especially for so long.

CHARLES GERBA: Yeah, really, the data is showing air in airplanes moves down. And so the risk from having passengers close together seems very marginal so that's one of the reasons why going back to not having the empty seat again. And then having the interventions of antiviral coatings and disinfecting seems to give us that assurance that there would be likely very little spread in the aircraft, taking these measures they would be doing.

So I feel fairly confident that the possibility of a virus being spread in the aircraft is going to be very minimal. In fact, you're probably going to have a much safer travel experience than you ever had before because of all the-- in place of technologies coming-- our better understanding of how a virus is spread in aircraft, actually.

AKIKO FUJITA: And to that point, we got numbers out from IATA. This is the International Air Transport Association, saying 1.2 million passengers traveled so far this year. Just 44 cases of the coronavirus that have been officially reported. A lot of those cases came before the mask mandates went into effect.

What about the HEPA filter? This is something we've heard a lot about from JetBlue, as well as Delta. How effective have you found those to be in conjunction with those other measures you talked about?

CHARLES GERBA: Yeah, HEPA filters can work fairly well. You know, even though the core size of them is much larger than the virus, because of the electrostatic interactions that are basically sticking to the filters, they're much more effective than most people realize.

But that's an added assurance. There's been some improvements in these HEPA filters in that, but they look fairly good at reducing the aerosol spread of the COVID-19 virus.

So we are looking at those right now and seeing, you know, how effective they are. Really, what we're after with all this is get an idea of what is your risk in the future. We believe now that technology comes into play. You'll have the safest air travel of any generation in history.

AKIKO FUJITA: And finally, how important is testing to all of this? We've heard the likes of United Airlines come out and say they will provide testing, although at the cost of the passenger, especially for flights to Hawaii, for example. I mean, is that going to be a key piece to all of this to allow for more and more people to travel in the way they did pre-pandemic?

CHARLES GERBA: Yeah, I think that's one aspect of it, is testing people. It's not 100% guaranteed, of course. But the added assurances of the way they clean and disinfect aircraft and the use of filters in it and masks, I think, minimizes the risk a great deal.

I mean, I think we can travel with a lot more confidence now because of all the effort being put into that, both testing the passengers, ensuring that the safety of the aircraft in terms of reducing and minimizing the spread of virus between individuals. So I think it's all part of the tool kit, if you have it, putting it all together to minimize the risks.

AKIKO FUJITA: Professor Charles Gerba with the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. I think you've brought a peace of mind to all of us who are looking to travel this holiday season. Appreciate your time today.