Many people are afraid to fly, because of the Covid-19 risk, but experts say the chances of getting the virus on a plane are slim. Credit: Dave Makichuk for Asia Times.

I was flying from Seattle to Washington, DC, on Alaska Airlines economy class.

A fate I reserve for deserters and other felons.

Trust me, nothing could be worse than travelling in the uber-cramped middle seat, economy class, on Alaska Airlines for five straight hours, with unfriendly young millennials on both sides — waiting for the food and drinks cart to reach the poor saps stuck at the back of the plane.

The only thing missing was Nicolas Cage and leg shackles — it actually did feel like Con Air.

What’s more, add the Covid-19 situation on top of that, with a mask, for the entire duration. I’d rather be shot at sunrise.

But according to some experts who point to the very few documented cases of in-flight transmission, the chances of catching the virus while on board a flight are actually relatively slim, CNN Travel reported.

If new scientific claims are borne out, the perceived heightened risk of boarding an airplane could be unfounded.

In one case, about 328 passengers and crew members were tested for coronavirus after it was learned that a March 31 flight from the US to Taiwan had been carrying 12 passengers who were symptomatic at the time, CNN reported.

However, all the other passengers tested negative, as did the crew members. And while there have certainly been cases of infected passengers passing the virus on to an airplane’screw or fellow travelers in recent months, the transmission rates are low.

A study recently published in medical journal JAMA Network Open found evidence of the possible spread of coronavirus during a four-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt in March, CNN reported.

Two passengers developed infections after flying with a group of tourists who had come into contact with an infected hotel manager and also became infected, according to researchers from the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

The two who may have been infected were seated at the back of the aircraft, directly across the aisle from seven passengers who had unknowingly picked up the virus, CNN reported.

An earlier flight from the UK to Vietnam on March 2, in which one passenger seemingly spread the virus to around 14 other passengers, as well as a crew member, is so far believed to be the only known on-board transmission to multiple people.

One explanation for the apparently low risk level is that the air in modern aircraft cabins is replaced with new fresh air every two to three minutes, and most planes are fitted with air filters designed to trap 99.99% of particles, CNN reported.

Meanwhile, various new protocols have been implemented, such as face-coverings for both passengers and crew, which is mandatory on most airlines, temperature screenings, as well as more intensive cabin cleaning and limited movement in the cabin during flight.

Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, tried to quantify the odds of becoming infected with the virus while on board a short flight in a recent study that looked at the benefits of the empty middle seat policy.

According to his findings, based on short haul flights in the US on aircraft configured with three seats on either side of the aisle, such as the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737 — and assuming everyone is wearing a mask — the risk of catching the virus on a full flight is just 1 in 4,300, CNN reported.

Those odds fall to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant.

“Most things are more dangerous now than they were before Covid, and aviation is no exception to that,” he tells CNN Travel.

“But three things have to go wrong for you to get infected (on a flight). There has to be a Covid-19 patient on board and they have to be contagious,” he says.

“If there is such a person on your flight, assuming they are wearing a mask, it has to fail to prevent the transmission.

“They also have to be close enough that there’s a danger you could suffer from the transmission.”

Barnett goes on to state that there isn’t much of a difference in terms of risk between passengers sitting in an aisle seat on a full flight and those in the window seat.

“Statistically, the window seat is a little safer than the middle seat or the aisle seat on a plane that’s full. But it’s not a big difference.”

“Overall, planes are probably safer than poorly ventilated pubs, where similar densities of people do not wear masks and talk a lot and loudly,” Julian Tang, at the University of Leicester in the UK, told New Scientist online.

“The ventilation systems on planes are very effective in reducing the overall concentration of any airborne pathogen exhaled by passengers,” says Tang.

The main risk may be face-to-face conversations where air can be exchanged before being pulled away — along with any conversations before or after the flights

And one more thing, if you’re travelling on Alaska Airlines, get the upgrade. It’s worth every penny.