As the Southwest Airlines Team continues supporting the well-being of our Customers and Employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also monitoring the latest outcomes of scientific research to guide our actions and protocols. We’re encouraged that much of the latest research validates the effectiveness of utilizing a multi-layered approach to lower the virus transmission risk associated with flying, like the actions we take as part of our Southwest Promise.
The Southwest Promise is an enduring pledge, but the way we’re upholding our procedures is evolving with guidance from the latest science. Results from a host of studies were recently released, and we are encouraged by the expertise and perspectives from these respected voices:
Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a study which concluded that the transmission risk of COVID-19 when flying is lower than other routine activities, such as grocery shopping or dining out, due to multi-layered protective measures, mask wearing, and the ventilation and HEPA filtration systems on aircraft. The scientists concluded that the ventilation and filtration on airplanes is so good that it reduces the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 to a point so low that it “effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights.” They also previously published a bulletin that concluded wearing face coverings as part of a multi-layered approach offers significant protection from acquiring COVID-19 during air travel. The bulletin supports our face-covering policy and affirms research from other top medical organizations. The report also cited a recent modeling study that concluded that wearing a surgical mask, combined with the ventilation rates onboard aircraft, can reduce the risk of infection from respiratory particles to less than 1 percent.
The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, offers reassuring news about the low risk of virus transmission during flight. Since the start of the year, they found only 44 cases of COVID-19 in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight—and many of those cases occurred in the early stages of the pandemic before enhanced cleaning procedures and mandatory face mask requirements were widely implemented by airlines. That’s 44 people out of the nearly 1.2 billion passengers who have traveled in 2020, or one case for every 27 million travelers this year. As IATA suggests, this is approximately the same risk category as being struck by lightning.
Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer also recently shared findings regarding cabin airflow. The manufacturers found that a combination of an airplane’s airflow systems, high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, barriers created by the seatbacks, downward airflow in aircraft cabins, and the high rates of air exchange efficiently limit the spread of viruses and reduce the risk of disease transmission. When you layer in the use of face coverings, the manufacturer’s data concludes that being in close proximity within an aircraft cabin is safer than most other indoor environments.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s U.S. Transportation Commandreleased the results from its Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Test showing the overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low on the types of aircraft they studied. The research indicated that high air exchange rate diluted particles within the aircraft cabins studied in less than six minutes, on average, and the typical American home takes about 90 minutes to clear the same types of particles. Additionally, the study concluded that the high air exchange coupled with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration of all recirculated air means a commercial aircraft’s air supply system provides protection greater than the design standards for a patient isolation room or a hospital operating room.
Along with reviewing the latest science-based findings regarding air travel, Southwest also recently announced that we’ll be collaborating with Stanford University’s School of Medicine. We’ve shared our multi-layered Southwest Promise with an advisory council from Stanford Medicine who agreed that our protocols follow proper science-based principles and can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission during air travel. We received positive feedback on actions such as our enhanced cleaning of aircraft, the requirement of face coverings for travel, and utilizing HEPA filters onboard aircraft, which remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles from cabin air. We’ll continue collaborating with Stanford Medicine for insights that will help us evolve our policies as we continue delivering on the Southwest Promise.
The Southwest Team is working each day to ensure that our multi-layered approach to cleaning and supporting your safety stays current with the latest research findings and public health guidance. When you’re ready to travel again, we’ll be ready to welcome you onboard with actions that support your well-being and comfort. We hope to see you soon!