Are travel professionals looking for flight bargains for themselves at the moment? No way Jose. Those in the know are (whisper it) not flying. This is because they know how high a transmission risk is when flying in a modern jet.
All major airports are screening passengers for the coronavirus, but the screening is no guarantee that everyone who boards a flight is virus free.
Wuhan Coronavirus appears to have an incubation period of up to 14 days before symptoms become apparent. Therefore there is a significant risk of people flying and thus transmitting the virus to fellow passengers before they fall ill themselves .
How risky is it?
The fatality rate in Wuhan where it started is 4.1 percent and in neighbouring Hubei it is 2.8 percent. However both of these cities are on lockdown and it has been claimed that this is affecting the transportation of medical supplies. Currently in the rest of China the fatality rate is just 0.17 percent, so the risk of actually dying from wuhan coronavirus is actually quite small.
The WHO have said that coronavirus-related travel restrictions are unnecessary and unhelpful, but in the last week we have seen airlines cutting more than 25,000 flights from their schedules. The WHO doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits!
The problem then is that air travel, by its very nature increases the risks of transmission by quite a margin. Once you are locked inside a flying metal canister if anyone else on the plane is infectious, there is a surprisingly high transmission risk.
The ten passengers sitting in the two rows closest to an infectious person are at reasonably high risk as are flight attendants. If the infectious passenger visits the loo, then other passengers visiting the same cubicle are also at higher infection risk.
If the cleaning of the cabin between flights doesn’t include pretty intense disinfectant use (and we have all flown on planes where that was obviously the case) then there is good data to suggest that certain viruses might live long enough on a seat or drop table to infect the passenger on the following flight. Whether coronavirus fits this model is yet to be established.
None of the above means that if you are near someone with coronavirus you will automatically get it, but who wants to increase their risk in any way whatsoever? Strangely enough, the air itself is probably the least worrisome aspect. Modern planes typically run everything through hepa filters at high enough rates that everyone is constantly being refreshed with filtered air.
What if the pilots get sick with coronavirus?
Actually not a major risk factor at all. Firstly they are on a seperate air system and even if a long haul pilot did start to get ill from coronavirus, the onset is no worse than the initial stages of flu (and for most people who do get infected, it never gets any worse than that… lets keep a bit of perspective here).
If you do have to fly, where should you sit?
Since people who have window seats are more likely to stay put rather than wander around the plane, they have a statistically lower risk of coming into contact with an infectious disease whilst flying. Also remember that hand sanitiser is your friend. Use it before, during and after the flight!
Update 25th Feb 2020 – Well it turns out you probably cannot fly anyway as there do seem to be quite a lot fewer landings and takeoffs in the last week. Flight BA564 destined for Milan was returned to Gate at Heathrow yesterday as passengers demanded they get off at news of the Virus spreading in Northern Italy.
Here is a list of airlines who have cancelled or suspended flights due to the outbreak
American, Air Canada, Air France, Air India, Air New Zealand, BA, Virgin, Delta, Egypt Air, ElAl, Ethiopian, Finnair, Kenya Air, Lufthansa, Royal Air Maroc, Shanghai Air, Turkish… the list keeps growing.