The risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane is extremely unlikely when all passengers on the flight tested negative for the virus 72 hours before departure, according to the findings of a new study.

The study, conducted by the Mayo Clinic and the Georgia Department of Health, is based on data from Delta Air Lines. It examined customer data on Delta’s COVID-tested flight corridors between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Italy’s Fiumicino International Airport.

The study found that of the 9,853 potential passengers who were tested 72 hours before boarding a flight in the U.S., 0.04 percent of the potential passengers tested positive by both the rapid antigen and confirmatory molecular tests. The average community infection prevalence rate at the time was estimated to be 1.1 percent, which is several magnitudes greater.

“This is the first real study. This is not a model, mathematics, or physics,” Dr. Henry Ting, Delta’s chief health officer, said in an article on The Hill. “These are real passengers who flew from the U.S. to Italy during the height of the third COVID-19 surge. [The study shows that] there are so many other activities you could do, like going to the grocery store, church, or a restaurant, where your risk of infection is way higher than flying.”

What The Data Proves

The study began in December 2020, with Delta’s trans-Atlantic COVID-19 testing program which allowed quarantine-free entry into Italy. This program “allowed teams to review and model various testing strategies for feasibility, false-positive rates, and case detection rates,” Delta explains.

Interestingly, potential passengers who tested positive by both the rapid antigen and confirmatory molecular tests were considered true positives and were not allowed to board aircraft. This means there were no false-positive rapid antigen tests.

“When you couple the extremely low infection rate on-board a COVID-19-tested flight with the layers of protection on-board including mandatory masking and hospital-grade air filtration, the risk of transmission is less than one in one million between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, for example,” Dr. Ting said in a statement. “These numbers will improve further as vaccination rates increase and new cases decrease worldwide.”

How The Data May Be Used

The risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel varies depending on factors such as case rates and vaccination rates at both the origin and destination, as well as whether or not masks are required on the plane and in the airport. However, “the data collected from this study show that the routine use of a single molecular test within 72 hours before international travel for unvaccinated individuals significantly mitigates the risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission during airline travel,” Dr. Ting explains.

“We are going to live with COVID-19 variants for some time,” Dr. Ting said. “This real-world data — not simulation models — is what governments around the world can use as a blueprint for requiring vaccinations and testing instead of quarantines to re-open borders for international travel.”

While it’s on your mind, be sure to also read all of our Italy coverage. If you are planning a trip, be sure to also check out all of our Travel News and COVID-19 coverage to stay up-to-date on restrictions.

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