Air travel has ground to a halt, and airline stocks have been decimated as the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders have kept all but essential travelers grounded, but that could be about to change. Several recent studies -- one commissioned by Boeing (NYSE:BA) -- backed up by two independent studies, have shown that the risk of catching coronavirus on planes may be much lower than previously believed.
In this episode of Fool Live that aired on Oct. 22, "The Wrap" host Jason Hall and Fool.com contributors Danny Vena and Lou Whiteman discuss these studies and what the results could mean for the airline industry.
Jason Hall: Are you ready to help us get smart?
Danny Vena: I am ready.
Jason Hall: Let's hear it.
Danny Vena: I got a little bit smarter today. I heard a snippet on the news today. They were talking about the fact that some recent studies showed that the deep cleaning methods that the airlines are using to clean the aircraft are actually much better than what air travelers may believe. I went and did a little research, and I actually found three recent studies that bear this out.
The first was a recent study that was commissioned by Boeing. I'll point that out at the top. This was commissioned by Boeing, so they had a vested interest in how this study turned out. But they partnered with researchers from the University of Arizona, and they sprayed a live surrogate virus on all of the strategic high-touch areas in an unoccupied plane. We're talking the armrest and the seat backs and the luggage compartments, overhead bins. This substitute that they used is safe for humans, but it's much more difficult to kill than the coronavirus.
They used the regular deep-cleaning and disinfecting methods that the airlines have been using since the onset of the pandemic. Then they analyzed all of these areas postcleaning. Basically, they rubbed Q-tips on them, and they stuck them in a solution to see whether or not there was any virus remaining. What they found was that the virus had been eradicated. Essentially, there wasn't enough of it left on the surfaces for them to be able to grow it in a Petri dish.
The second study was one that was released by the Department of Defense. What they did was they traced fluorescent tracer aerosols. Basically, they sprayed aerosol around the plane that would represent the airborne particles that are produced by exhaling and by coughing. What they found was that the combination of HEPA filters, the high air exchange rates -- the air in an aircraft is exchanged about every three minutes -- and the recirculation that they used in these modern jets reduced the risk of aerosol dispersion by over 99.7%. That means that the likelihood of transmitting the virus through the air is minimal, almost nonexistent.
Finally, researchers in Hong Kong, they checked United Arab Emirates Airlines flights between mid-June and early July, because in Hong Kong where they did this test, they are very strict about people. They test them when they get off the plane, they're quarantined for two weeks, and then they test them again at the end of the two-week period, so they can easily identify who the people are that were infected with coronavirus before their flights. What they found was there were 58 people on those flights that had been infected with coronavirus before they got on the plane. But the really interesting thing about the results were that of the nearly 2,000 passengers that were on the planes with them, none of those people caught coronavirus. To me, this means that air travel is much, much safer than we thought, and the chances of catching the coronavirus on a plane are very, very low.
I was shocked. I'm the guy that said, "I'm not getting on a plane. Forget it." Color me surprised.
Jason Hall: A thing I love about this is this is the idea of letting the data guide your actions and decisions. My initial bias would have been that there's higher risk. But I want to say this too. I think this is important, before we give Lou a chance to share something that's personal to me. I think what it confirms is that the idea of flying with fewer passengers is also playing a role here. These aren't planes that have 250 people shoulder to shoulder. I think we have to say that maybe there's a little bit of the entire process is working effectively. I don't think it necessarily means they need to fill them up. That's just me. Lou?
Lou Whiteman: Can I just say as both the resident airline bull and a germophobe: It's not the plane that scares me; it's that time at the airport just really grosses me out. That's what I'm trying to say. That's what we really needs to talk about.
Jason Hall: Fair enough.