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Risk of COVID-19 exposure is ‘virtually nonexistent’ on airlines when people wear masks, study shows

United Airlines and Department of Defense worked together on a study to examine COVID-19 exposure.

File - A United Airlines Express jet takes off from Pittsburgh International Airport, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
File - A United Airlines Express jet takes off from Pittsburgh International Airport, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

United Airlines and the Department of Defense recently worked together on a new study that found the risk of COVID-19 is “virtually nonexistent.”

  • The study found a 0.003% chance particles from one’s breathing space can enter the air.

What’s going on?

United Airlines and the DOD worked together on a new study that ran 300 tests in six months on mannequins on United planes, according to ABC News.

  • The mannequin had an aerosol generator that allowed researchers to reproduce the experience of breathing and coughing.
  • The researchers reviewed what would happened if the mannequin wore its mask or took it off, ABC News reports.
  • The study assumed the flight was full. The plane added sensors to duplicate the idea of multiple people on the flight.
  • The US Transportation Command, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and the Air Mobility Command used Boeing 777-200 and 767-300 aircraft for the study, according to CNN.


United Airlines Chief Communication Officer Josh Earnest told ABC News the study found positive results:

  • “99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes. It indicates that being on board an aircraft is the safest indoor public space, because of the unique configuration inside an aircraft that includes aggressive ventilation, lots of airflow.”

Consider this:

The researchers said the study assumed that mask wearing was continuous and few personnel were infected with COVID-19, according to CNN.

  • ”Contamination of surfaces via nonaerosol routes (large droplets or fecal contamination) is more likely in lavatories and other common areas and is not tested here,” researchers said. “These alternative routes of exposure are more challenging to predict because of uncertainty in human behavior.”

The study did not account for activity in the airport, at the gates and in restrooms. The researchers did not account for erratic human behavior, according to CNN.

  • “Testing did not include substantial movement throughout the plane or in the airport, lounge or jetway, where air change rates and human interactions will vary,” the researchers added.
  • “Similarly, the mannequin remained facing forward, uncertainty in human behavior with conversations and behavior may change the risk and directionality in the closest seats to an index patient, especially for large droplets.”