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Medicine Transportation Science

How a Virus Spreads Through an Airplane Cabin ( 76

An anonymous reader shares a report: Traveling by plane greatly increases our chances of getting sick, or so many of us are wont to believe. To be fair, it's not uncommon to come down with a nasty illness after we return from a vacation or business trip. But is flying the culprit? The latest research suggests the answer is no -- but much of it depends on where we sit. New research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that airline passengers infected with influenza -- a disease that spreads through the air -- aren't likely to infect other passengers who sit more than two seats to the left or right, or more than two seats in front or back. In other words, your chances of contracting the flu from an infected passenger are slim -- unless you're sitting within about three feet (one meter) of them. Given that three billion of us fly annually, combined with the popular conception that we often contract diseases inflight, it's surprising to learn that very few studies have looked into this issue in detail.
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How a Virus Spreads Through an Airplane Cabin

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  • by Wild_dog! ( 98536 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2018 @04:17PM (#56293125)

    So how long does the flu virus sit on a surface?

    Every time I see someone hacking up a lung on a plane I wonder how big a radius has that one person infected.
    Then I think about how long the duration of the virus on a surface is.

    Then I think of my inadvertent hand contact with such surfaces and the innocent brushing of my eyes or handling of something I might stuff in my mouth along with he virus.

    I just don't buy what they are selling and I got my masters in public health with an emphasis in Tropical Disease.

    Maybe diseases and their spread has changed somehow since I went to school?

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2018 @04:39PM (#56293247)

      Every time I see someone hacking up a lung on a plane ...

      In China they use IR cameras at the security gate. If you are running a fever, or hacking and coughing, you can't board the plane. The rationale is to keep disease in one province from spreading to the rest of the country, but it should also reduce in-flight infections.

      • Bird flu amongst other diseases I would think. With people packed in as they are in China, it seems like the spread of things could be a bit easier and quicker.

        An old epidemiology professor reminded me that any single study is not often correct. Once their are 20 studies that back it up one may be on to something.
        But alas, our anti-science society seems to latch on to every new study as if it is absolutely how things are rather than a study which points in a direction there needs to be more study.

      • by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2018 @05:42PM (#56293709)

        The IR cameras are actually to detect androids/reptilians hiding among the populace.

  • I fly when no other option is available. I plan to for germs but if seated near a sick person my options are limited. Parachute please?
    • You can always bring a respirator with a full face goggle, Heisenberg style. If you wear this during the flight, you're protected from airborne spit particles that are ejected when a neighbor sneezes AND you're protected from germs on surfaces (because you have to touch the surface with your hand and then touch your mouth/nose/eyes with your hand to get infected, and you can't touch your face if you have the respirator on).

      After you get off the plane, take off the respirator first *then* thoroughly wash you

      • I love germaphobes. Have you guys ever kissed anyone? You aren't going to die from germs. You might get some sniffles. Geez.
        • Have you guys ever kissed anyone?

          Kissing a healthy person who is not infected with a communicable disease = harmless. Kissing an infected person = you will be infected.

          You aren't going to die from germs.

          I suggest you google "young adult influenza deaths 2018"... you might change your mind.

          • by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2018 @05:53PM (#56293801) Homepage Journal
            No you won't get infected. If that were true everyone in the entire planet would be sick constantly. Amazingly your body has this thing called an "immune system". Get over yourself. And, wow, 30 deaths out of 350 million? You need to get a grip on reality. Over 3,500 people drowned last year in the US. Germaphobes have a complete lack of common sense.
            • Go look up how little norovirus it takes to make a healthy person into a sick person. Did you know that the effectiveness of your immune system may vary. So if you work your ass off all week on a deadline, head straight to the bar on friday night, and wake up with a hangover. You're going to get sick super easy.

        • You live in the middle of Silicon Valley where there is an epidemic of hepatitis via surface contamination. (Hep can survive on surfaces for weeks)
          There are also regular norovirus outbreaks.
          Both of these diseases can kill you and I'd hate to be the motherfucker who catches the both at the same time because his sleeve scraped some surface that some homeless supercarrier sat on to dump a load of bloody diarrhea.

  • as you are walking through the cabin that is fully seated you may be within that proximity to 3/4 the people on the plane at one time or another.

  • by dsgrntlxmply ( 610492 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2018 @04:34PM (#56293225)

    There was a memorable 1996 article in the New England Journal of Medicine examining transmission of drug resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis by a passenger on a commercial airline flight. []

    Especially memorable is a seat map showing the index passenger's seat, and locations of others who showed positive TB skin tests.

    • by tomhath ( 637240 )
      As I read the article, their model concludes that viruses are mostly spread to fellow passengers in close proximity. They then note that this isn't the observed phenomenon:

      Then how can we explain case reports documenting the over 40% of transmission of influenza and SARS to nontribe passengers?

      Their explanation is that their model is correct but the observed data is wrong...Okay.

      • No, they are simply plain dumb.

        The spread is via the airconditioning system.

        • Yeah... I had a flight some years ago where someone threw up just as the doors were being closed... the flight crew refused to re-open them due to some regulations or something... the flight had to continue on with the smell of vomit circulating the cabin for 5 hours. It is important to note that we were not all seated together, with 8-10 rows of separation on the flight. 24 hours after landing my entire family got full blown GI distress... and 24 hours after that, nearly every person we had interacted wi

        • Those are HEPA filtered. (But they probably don't maintain it well!) A dirty HEPA filter actually becomes better at filtering even smaller particles as its pores load up. It'd be a surprise if droplets of pathogen even made their way into the air intake for recirculation as it was.
          • I'm not sure if the AC can filter virus, I doubt it however.
            For certain the AC causes "wind" inside of the fuselage and can so spread a simple sneeze much farer then just the next seats.

            • If it is HEPA it can most certainly filter viruses, that's what is used in PAPRs that keep researchers safe from ebola and what have you. You see them in movies, as well.
              • Yeah, but we are talking about the AC in an airplane. I google later a bit, perhaps they indeed have virus proof filters, too. After all it would make sense. But perhaps it is to costly or to heavy.

  • 3 billion people fly annually? Unlikely. My guess is around 500 million. Who writes this stuff?
    • On a 7 billion planet?

      Why don't you google? [] that is from 2014 ...

      • Do you think? The "3 billion" number is the number of passengers. That is number of people sitting in a seat. Many people fly multiple flights per destination and fly multiple trips. That is where the "3 billion" number comes from - it isn't the number of individuals. There are whole areas of the world that don't have shoes, or haven't seen an airplane. You guys need to get out of your basement.
        • Of course it is not the number of individuals ... no one claimed that.

          You guys need to get out of your basement.
          And you should get some clue :D

          E.g. I have no basement ... just like you have no shoes ... or who was it you referred to, who has no shoes?

  • It also works if you're using an old Apple Powerbook. Then your virus can infect *anything*, even computers based on completely alien technology.

  • You windows users are such wimps, needing so much of anti virus software. As a certified fanboi of Apple I don't need no such thing and I am totally protected. I am not scared of virus...

    Wait, I am way off base here, right? It's not that kind of virus, eh?

    Well, why waste a perfectly typed comment? Hit submit.

  • Fast travel and long distance travel spreads disease at very high speed. You might sit next to a sick person and never get sick but then you go to the store and four people get sick and take it home and it goes from there. It is a very serious problem and short of stopping travel and tourism it is a hazard we all must bear.
    • And amazingly we aren't all dead. You guys need to realize that your body has an immune system. Germs aren't going to kill you.
      • And amazingly we aren't all dead. You guys need to realize that your body has an immune system. Germs aren't going to kill you.

        Unless you are elderly or immune compromised. Then they can kill you. If you are in one of those groups and you are lucky the people around you will be vaccinated and practice good hygiene. Even if young healthy people don't care that much about catching the flu themselves, maybe they don't want to accidentally kill their own parents/grandparents?

  • > In addition to recording the movements of passengers and crew, the team also collected air and surface samples from areas most likely to host microbes.

    The article didn't mention the bathrooms, of which only a few service dozens of people who serially share a very small space.

  • I always see the sneezers sniveling and rubbing their running noses, then walk to the toilet and steadying themselves by touching every seat top on the way, the very same spots all the other passengers touch as well on their way to the toilets.

    No need for airborne viruses.

"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." -- Will Rogers