Major airports have begun screening passengers for the coronavirus, and more than three dozen airlines—including Delta, American and United—have cut their flights to mainland China. But those measures may not provide much solace to anyone who has to board a flight. How do viruses spread—and specifically on airplanes? And how serious is the coronavirus threat compared to the likes of influenza? When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they shed droplets of saliva, mucus, or other bodily fluids. If any of those droplets fall on you—or if you touch them and then, say, touch your face—you can become infected as well.
These droplets are not affected by air flowing through a space, but instead fall fairly close to where they originate. According to Emily Landon, medical director of antimicrobial stewardship and infection control at the University of Chicago Medicine, the hospital’s guidelines for influenza define exposure as being within six feet of an infected person for 10 minutes or longer.
Respiratory illnesses can also be spread through the surfaces upon which the droplets land—like airplane seats and tray tables. How long those droplets last depends both on the droplet and the surface—mucus or saliva, porous or non-porous, for example. Viruses can vary dramatically in how long they last on surfaces, from hours to months.
But people don’t just sit during flights, particularly ones lasting longer than a few hours. They visit the bathroom, stretch their legs, and grab items from the overhead bins. In fact, during the 2003 coronavirus outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a passenger aboard a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing infected people well outside the WHO’s two-row boundary. The New England Journal of Medicine noted that the WHO criteria “would have missed 45 percent of the patients with SARS.”
Eight planes at Heathrow Airport were grounded this morning after passengers complained of coronavirus symptoms. Passengers on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco were told to stay put after landing because someone on board may have caught the deadly flu-like disease. The captain reportedly warned they could be stuck on the tarmac for some time as the alarm had been raised on ‘seven other planes’. A British Airways flight from Kuala Lumpur was understood to have been held up for two hours after staff became concerned a Malaysian family ‘of around eight’ could be carrying the bug.
It was stated in the media that airport authorities dispute the length of the delay and say only one customer was suspected of being infected. Public Health England and Heathrow officials have refused to release any details about this morning’s incident, which would have involved hundreds of passengers.
United Airlines have confirmed someone had ‘become unwell’ on board Flight 901 from San Francisco. One traveller said travellers had been asked to fill in a form before workers in hazmat suits came to clean the vehicle.
Andy West, from Henley-on-Thames, said staff led a passenger to the back of the aircraft and waited for health officials to arrive. The traveller said everyone else was allowed to leave about half-an-hour later. He told MailOnline: ‘
We were told to stay sat until authorities came on board, and he [the captain] said that seven other flights had landed and had a similar situation. ‘I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried, my mind started to race.’
The chief development officer for a PR agency said cabin crew were not wearing any masks or protective clothing when dealing with the passenger. In a statement United Airlines said:
‘Our team at London Heathrow Airport is providing assistance related to United flight 901 (San Francisco-London Heathrow) today, following reports of an individual becoming unwell onboard. ‘The safety of our customers and employees is our highest priority and we continue to work closely with local authorities. ‘It is not clear what happened to the passenger who became unwell, nor where they had travelled from.
’ There have now been 15 cases of coronavirus in the US, where the government has banned all travellers who have been to China over the past two weeks. No cases have been recorded in San Francisco but six people were diagnosed in California – two in nearby San Jose.
Nine people in the UK have tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus, named this week as Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation. The disease has now infected more than 64,000 people across the world and has killed more than 1,300 people – mostly in the outbreak’s epicentre of Wuhan, China.