Flight survey from United Airlines/Dept. of Defense met with skepticism from Virginia Tech professor

Local News

RONAOKE/BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — A new test from United Airlines and the Department of Defense recently showed a low risk of contracting COVID-19 while flying.

This test certainly came at a good time for people thinking of purchasing flight tickets for traveling on either Thanksgiving, Christmas, or both.

While the study shows low transmission, one Virginia Tech professor says she’s skeptical.

“There was no movement,” said Dr. Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech. “And so if people are moving around, more people are turning their heads to talk, then that would definitely increase the risk of exposure.”

The test took place over an eight day period, using mannequins and aerosol releases to show if a sick passenger could infect others on the same plane.

Marr says the only thing the simulation demonstrated was breathing.

“They didn’t assess talking, and when we talk we release ten times more than when we breathe,” Marr pointed out. “The other thing is that the ‘person,’ the mannequin, was just facing forward the whole time, and there was no movement in the plane by any of the people.”

Marr does add that the test was well-designed and that it was conducted by people who know what they’re doing. The results, she says, are only a best case scenario outcome.

Folks at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (ROA) say precautions have already been set in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Everything throughout this entire process is the safety of the crews and the customers,” said Brad Boettcher with ROA.

The tests conducted by United Airlines and the Department of Defense were also performed exclusively on larger aircraft, ones that don’t typically land at airports like ROA.

It’s the smaller aircraft, Marr says, that lack proper air filtration systems, and that makes a difference when it comes to protecting passengers from COVID-19 transmission.

“Although, I did read that American Piedmont is upgrading all of their commuter jets to have excellent filtration by the end of the year,” Marr noted.

Marr says contraction goes beyond just the plane adding that the full scope of travel has to be considered, from the taxi ride to baggage claim.

“The challenge of the travel industry, right now, is going to be if you can fly somebody safely there, is it going to be safe for them to do things when they get there,” Boettcher said, pointing out that airports can’t control what happens outside the airport.

Boettcher also says it’s the regional airports like ROA that are able to keep flyers in check during the pandemic, which is what Steve Bateson thought, as well, as he landed at ROA for the first time on Monday, Oct. 26.

“It’s a little more organized,” Bateson said. “I’ve been flying since probably April, and every time I’ve gotten on a plane, I haven’t felt worried or unsafe.”

Marr says her take on the test doesn’t mean she’s against holiday travel. She advises those who may see the United Airlines/Department of Defense report to not take it as a “clean bill of health” when considering to travel.

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