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Professors claim passengers can contract COVID-19 while flying on planes

Australians have been urged to use caution when they fly as a health expert claims the deadly coronavirus can spread wildly on planes.

Airlines have previously claimed there was a low risk of catching the virus while flying, adding there had been no confirmed evidence of transmission on aircraft.

Qantas and other airlines also recently scrapped their middle seat ban to allow for more passengers on domestic flights.

But Queensland University of Technology atmospheric science professor Lidia Morawska believes the risk of contracting the virus while in the air is much higher than the airlines claim.

‘Every virus on planes can be transmitted because it’s a small environment; I don’t know why this virus would be different,’ Professor Morawska told the Australian Financial Review.

The professor said because planes were so confined, the air flows between people before it goes into the filtration system.

‘If someone sits in that airflow from an infected person for a duration of the flight, the person can inhale enough of the virus to be infected,’ she said.

Airlines are supplying masks to passengers, using hand sanitiser and ensuring social distancing is carried out before boarding. 

Professor Morawska believes wearing a mask can ‘significantly decrease the risk and potentially bring it below the infectious dose’. 

She said due to the airflow on planes, masks should be a priority.

Dr Oliver Rawashdeh from the University of Queensland’s School of Biomedical Sciences also warned travellers about the risk of flying.

He said it was clear coronavirus could be transmitted through the air and airconditioning services – and aircraft are no exception.

‘As a scientist, I would not put myself on a plane at the moment unless I really had to, such as for a family emergency,’ he said.  

Last month, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy described the risk of contracting COVID-19 on flights as ‘low’. 

‘Airlines, domestic airlines, certainly short-haul airlines, present quite a low risk of transmission because of their air handling,’ he said.

‘We have not seen a clear case of transmission of the virus on a domestic flight in Australia. So whilst initially the airlines were practising good distancing, they are now occupying their seats more fully, and I know that’s one of the circumstances where we think it’s not an unreasonable choice if someone chooses to wear a mask.’

In April airlines like Qantas banned passengers from booking the middle seat after a photo went viral showing a packed domestic flight.

But a month later Qantas announced that policy would be discontinued for financial reasons.

The airline is offering all Qantas and Jetstar passengers with masks on flights. 

Masks are mandatory on Qantas flights to and from Victoria.

Technology used in the planes are able to trap around 99 per cent of bacteria travelling in the air. 

A spokesperson for Qantas said the airline was following strict health advice from the Chief Medical Officer. 

‘Australia’s Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Medical Officers in each state and territory have endorsed the approach taken by airlines,’ they said.

‘Health Minister Greg Hunt has said the Medical Expert Panel, consisting of the Chief Medical Officers, believes the risk of transmission of COVID-19 on flights is low.’

Qantas Group Medical Director, Dr Ian Hosegood, said the airflow on board aircraft also allowed for low risk of transmission.

‘The data shows that actual risk of catching Coronavirus on an aircraft is already extremely low,’ he said.

‘That’s due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, the fact people don’t sit face-to-face and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier. As far as the virus goes, an aircraft cabin is a very different environment to other forms of public transport.’  

It comes as a woman in her 30s tested positive after flying from into Sydney from Victoria, it was revealed on Tuesday. 

The passenger boarded flight JQ506 in Melbourne on Saturday before testing positive to COVID-19 in New South Wales.

NSW Health said they are contacting travellers who sat near the woman on the flight. Close contacts will be required to isolate for two weeks.

Passengers seated in rows 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 have been identified as close contacts.

NSW Health said the woman is in isolation and contact tracing is underway.

Another flight from Jakarta to Sydney was also revealed to have a positive passenger after landing on July 22. 

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