The omicron variant of the coronavirus raises the risk of infection on board a passenger plane by two or even three-fold, according to the airline industry’s biggest trade body, a finding that may foreshadow an exponential increase in cases as millions of travelers take to the skies to be with their families during the holiday season.
In an interview with Bloomberg, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) medical adviser David Powell claimed that the risk of transmission on board a plane remains much lower than crowded places on the ground due to the use of hospital-grade air filters.
While encouraging passengers to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing, Powell said that a modern passenger jet is a “high-flow airflow environment,” which he said lowers the relative risk compared to places like pubs, gymnasiums, shopping centers or even airports.
Despite the purported higher risk of infection due to omicron, Powell said he believes getting a booster shot is more beneficial than not flying at all.
Powell also stated that leaving middle rows empty or having cabin crew wear full protective suits is unlikely to provide much benefit.
“The greatest protection you can give yourself is to be vaccinated and boosted. The protection that you give yourself from an extra mask or a different type of mask, or not flying at all, frankly, is probably less than the benefit you would get from just being fully boosted,” Powell told Bloomberg.
Last week, top executives from the major U.S. airlines—all IATA members—addressed a U.S. Senate Committee where all seemed to imply that wearing masks on flights may be unnecessary. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that “masks don’t add much” on planes. This is a departure from what Powell told Bloomberg on Tuesday where he implied that masking was a key mitigation measure against infections.
Concerns about omicron have not led to a drop in domestic travel with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby noting on Monday that the next two weeks will be the busiest for the airline since the start of the pandemic. Earlier this month, the American Automobile Association (AAA) also predicted that 6.4 million people will travel by air between December 23 and January 2—a 184% increase over the 2020 holiday season. The busy travel season has raised concerns that the ongoing omicron-fueled pandemic surge may see exponential growth at the start of the new year. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that omicron has become the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for 73.2% of new cases.
Online search trends on Google show that far fewer people in the U.S. are searching for the phrase “cancel flight” during this holiday season compared to August when the delta variant surge took hold across the U.S.