What are the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane?

I haven’t flown since February, which is by far the longest I’ve gone in my adult life. Prior to this pandemic the longest I’d gone without stepping on a plane was just weeks, maybe a month. I’ve averaged 50+ flights a year for decades, so staying grounded isn’t something I want to do.

However, I have two little kids at home and a history of asthma, so it’s the prudent choice. I’ve canceled over two dozen trips in the past six months (like this once-in-a-lifetime trip with my best friend), and many of them were with my wife and kids, including a dream trip to the island of Maui. But one of the biggest reasons I haven’t flown—besides the fact that there aren’t many places Americans can go without a mandatory 14-day quarantine—is that many doctors say it’s not safe to fly (more: Would Doctors Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic?).

That said, like most people I haven’t been sure exactly what “not safe” means. I know that plane air is relatively clean, especially after a conference call with Boeing about how the company is advising its customers (the airlines) and the general public regarding the best ways to keep COVID-19 off of planes. Importantly, modern commercial planes are equipped with HEPA filters. Use of these filters, especially on the ground, too, as United has made its practice, tell me that as long as you’re not sitting near someone that has COVID-19 (I know, that’s a big IF), and that you follow the general safety guidelines (wear a mask, wipe down your seat, don’t touch your face…), you can feel confident that you won’t get it. And yet doctors still advise against non-essential flying, and I feel sure that however elevated the risk is it’s not one I’m comfortable taking yet. So what exactly are the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane?

What are the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane?

As I read this week in a new Bloomberg piece written by Faye Flam, “Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been trying to quantify the odds of catching Covid-19 from flying.” And he’s come up with a few estimates. According to his not-yet-peer-reviewed results:

  • The odds of catching COVID-19 on a two-hour flight that’s full are 1 in 4,300
  • The odds of catching COVID-19 on a two-hour flight on which all middle seats are left empty are 1 in 7,700
  • The odds of catching COVID-19 on a flight and then dying as a result are between 1 in 400,000 and 1 in 600,000, depending on your age and other risk factors. (“To put that in perspective, those odds are comparable to the average risk of getting a fatal case in a typical two hours on the ground.”)

In coming up with these numbers, Flam writes, Barnett “factored in a bunch of variables, including the odds of being seated near someone in the infectious stage of the disease, and the odds that the protection of masks (now required on most flights) will fail” as well as “accounted for the way air is constantly renewed in airplane cabins, which experts say makes it very unlikely you’ll contract the disease from people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity — your row, or, to a lesser extent, the person across the aisle, the people ahead of you or the people behind you.”

These odds should be treated with a grain of salt and I don’t see how they can even be right but it’s interesting to see his thought on risk put into numbers. Also interestingly, Barnett himself told Flam that “he wouldn’t fly right now because his age, 72, puts him at higher risk than the average American.” He also added that “you have to consider the risk of adding to the problem by getting the virus and unknowingly passing it on to others.” Flam investigates further in the Bloomberg piece, which is worth a read in full.

What do you think?

Are the odds of catching COVID-19 on plane that Barnett came up with higher or lower than you expected? Do they change how you feel about flying right now? Please let me know in the comments below!


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20 Comments On "What Are the Odds of Catching COVID-19 on a Plane?"
  1. Marlin|

    I am still driving, so I have accepted the odds of dying.

    And I have flown twice, once to Florida (about a 4 hour flight including a layover) and cross country to San Diego which was about 6-7 hours one way, I didn’t worry about it. It’s proven that worry and fear can’t effect your immune system.

  2. Marlin|

    My earlier comment should have said “worry” can effect your immune system.

  3. Martha Merritt|

    Though the odds in the article aren’t horrible, I am in the vulnerable age group and don’t HAVE to go any where right now, so choose not to travel. If there were a family emergency, however, I would risk it. Problem for me is trusting all the strangers on the plane. Not knowing where they have been or with whom scares me. Having contracted whooping cough from sick kids behind me on a plane, I know well that people won’t cancel their flights when they are sick with colds and flu. With COVID-19, asymptomatic people can still be spreading it, so for now, I won’t be flying.

  4. Toni Powell|

    Recent figures showing the number of TSA employees infected with COVID 19 focus my concern on the risks associated with the airport as well as the flight itself. The number of people you’re exposed to and the proximity in boarding and disembarking is a much greater risk than the flight itself.

  5. Anne Reilly|

    Am I misinterpreting something? The odds of catching Covid are higher on flights with middle seats blocked, than on full flights? Yes, I am very afraid to fly due to being in a high risk group..

  6. Chris Lazarus|

    A good friend caught Covid 19 (not hospitalized despite being 65) on a business trip just at the beginning of the Stay At Home orders ..under 2 hour trip, no underlying conditions besides his age. Did he catch it on the plane? In the airport? During his business dealings? That’s the problem. A plane ride is not an isolated experience. If we could all just stay home and wear masks and avoid gatherings, we could beat this thing.

  7. Denise Storace Blaskovic|

    Wonder what the odds are on international flights?

  8. Kevin Wilkerson|

    How many flight attendants and crew do you know that have got it? I know several crew and none have it. As in anything, there’s several factors such as health, pre-existing conditions, etc. And of course taking precautions. I’m not worried so much about me but other who don’t wash their hands after being in the restroom, are sloppy, etc. Good post by the way!

  9. Cindy|

    I’m risk-averse with an autoimmune disorder at 59. No flying for me.
    It makes me profoundly sad my 81 year old otherwise healthy mom hasn’t seen her Grands since 11/2019 and going to FL is the last thing she’s going to do. Hopeful for Summer 2021. Maybe.

  10. Andrew Lee Hale|

    For many years I did a lot of business, sales, and engineering writing. About 50 years ago a marketing guy told me “After 6 lines start a new paragraph. Nobody reads the 7th line.”

    Neurologic studies now have told us why.

    The computational overhead for our brain to keep track where we are reading on the page jumps exponentially after 6 lines. That is the result of the very small area of our detailed vision.

    Good article, but my old retired rocket scientist brain is tired after reading it

  11. Andrew|

    I got the trifecta–had my 70 yr old sister-in-law fly from Brazil ( #2 Country with Covid) to Mexico City ((#2 in Latin America and climbing) where, ironically she quarantined at an airport hotel for 14 days, and then flew MEX to JFK. Aeromexico Flight from Sao Paulo to Mexico City was completely full, hotel had very good Covid protective measures, AeroMexico flight from Mexico City to JFK was a codeshare with Delta, thus no middle seats sold. Arrived Aug 2, quarantining here for 14 days. Covid test taken last Friday, still awaiting results. So far , so good. Why did we have her fly? To preserve her Immigrant visa which would have expired on August 6. Would I have had her flown otherwise? No. As a virologist friend of mine said when I ran the itinerary by him for his thoughts, ” So , let’s recap, you are flying a 70 year old woman from the country with the 2nd most covid deaths, to a country and city with the third most covid deaths, to a country with the most covid deaths. It’s not a question of will she be exposed to the Covid virus but rather how many times”

  12. Joyce Massey|

    We have flown 4 times this year from.Phoenix. Maimi, Salk Lake City, Boise. We have no worries. The only ‘problem’ was a flight attendant who woke me up to tell me to cover my chin!
    We do look forward to the end of covid-19.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Good to hear!

  13. Gary|

    Like a previous comment, I’d be concerned about fellow travelers as to their associations and whether they’ve been diligent in following all CDC guidelines. If all travelers have been following these guidelines, which they aren’t, it improves one’s odds immensely of not getting the virus. As for myself and my wife, both in our seventies, we’re not flying. We, like so many others, had a major international trip planned which was cancelled and are now waiting for reimbursement which appears many months in the process.

  14. Richard Vitale|

    I just turned 80 years old May 1st and my wife turned 79 June 26th and we have no fear of flying. I am a retired airline pilot and what I have read as far as what the airlines are doing to protect their passengers is good enough for us to feel safe. When we look at the percentage of how many cases of people that got the virus vs. deaths, we feel we are OK to travel as long as we wear our masks and wash our hands and maintain the required social distance. We are aware of those that are around us and use common sense. Our daughter is a teacher at an international school in Mumbai India. Since the pandemic, she has flown from Mumbai to Newark to Indiana to Colorado to Maine back to Indiana to Newark and back to Mumbai ! She quarantined in a hotel in Mumbai on her return and is now teaching ! If we had a reason to fly, we would be on a plane tomorrow!
    We just booked 2 cruises for next year. Be cautious and don’t panic !

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Great to hear!

  15. Deb|

    We are 73 & 65, yet we chose to fly once in July (OH to CO r/t). We took extra precautions, double masked, wiped down everything, etc. I felt we did everything we could to mitigate our risk, so we’re comfortable with that. Of course we miss taking our international trip this year and have not yet made plans for 2021. But we will fly nationally again this year.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Good to hear! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Wendei Melnick Smith|

    I’ve been on 4 planea as I had to travel for medical. We had enough points to fly first class and Delta and Alaska were incredibly safe. We wore Vollara personal care devices around our necks as I’m a distributor. They use light and H2o2 to purify the air in your personal space and emit a tiny emit of ozone. Outside of being groped by a TSA agent at Burbank airport and having to retain a lawyer we felt safe.

  17. Diane N|

    I am curious about why you had to retain an attorney.

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