Aircraft Cabin COVID-19 Studies Affirm Safe Travel with Mask Compliance and Layered COVID-19 Safety Procedures

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 27, 2020) — An Aerosol Test Team, working in cooperation with United Airlines and Boeing, submitted a study this month to the U.S. Department of Defense Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) on the risks of COVID-19 exposure in commercial air travel. 

"Aviation safety and security is layered,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “We have worked with airlines to implement multiple layers of safety measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 onboard. The DOD study provides some valuable new data supporting the critical role of face masks in disease prevention. What’s clear: If worn properly and at all times, masks are the most important component of a layered approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19 on planes and in our communities.”

The study demonstrates that when a passenger is seated, facing forward, not talking, and consistently wearing a surgical mask, only 0.001% of infected air particles could enter their breathing zone, even when every seat on the plane is occupied. The authors attributed part of the benefit to the air supply system design and operation. 

“This study affirms the importance of wearing masks. It also assumes ideal conditions with masks on throughout the flight and no movement in the cabin while onboard,” Nelson continued. “Airlines and regulators should not use this study to change or weaken current layered COVID safety procedures. To approach the levels of safety suggested by this research, regulators must require: effective masks to be worn properly by every occupant; minimal provision of onboard service items; maximum cabin ventilation rates at all times in flight and on the ground; installation and regular replacement of HEPA filters; and regular cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting of airplane interiors.”

AFA has worked with airlines over the last eight months to establish COVID-19 operational policies and procedures due to the federal government’s inaction. With cases surging across the country, now is not the time to let our guard down. 

“Airlines have been taking these steps as part of an effective, layered approach to controlling the risk of onboard transmission. To ensure the economic recovery of our industry, we must continue applying these important public health measures throughout our aviation system for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency,” Nelson concluded. 

AFA COVID-19 Operational Recommendations (October 2020)

  • Continue to require that masks are worn onboard until a vaccine is widely available, and implement these onboard service policies to facilitate consistent mask-wearing:

    • Minimize onboard food and beverage service to essential items;
    • Make regular announcements: (1) for passengers to not remove their mask until the Flight Attendant has passed their row; and (2) for passengers to only “dip” their mask down momentarily to take a bite or a sip (“dip and sip”);
    • Add onboard mask protocols to flight attendant safety demos, including the requirement for everyone to wear a mask throughout the flight, to wear it over the month and nose, and to only dip it down momentarily when eating/drinking; 
    • Only serve cold food and drinks on flights less than 1,800 miles/three hours; 
    • Serve individual cans/bottles for drinks, do not pour beverages from master bottles;
    • Stop onboard alcohol sales: alcohol consumption is non-essential and can reduce mask compliance.

  • Maintain social-distancing space for flight attendants, whenever possible on the plane and transportation to/from hotel. Provide regular briefing sheet reminders about best practices in crowded spaces to reduce risk - persistent proper mask use, avoid common touch locations, use of 60% alcohol or more hand sanitizer, and wash hands for 20 seconds or more as soon as practicable after once at destination (airport or hotel).

  • Maintain employee sick leave policies with economic coverage of testing and non-punitive sick calls if experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

  • Conduct timely notification to Flight Attendants on exposure to confirmed coronavirus cases, with a 72 hours lookback to a passenger or crewmember reporting either symptoms or a positive test result, including notification to crewmembers if one or more passengers test positive post-flight. Continue company-sponsored crew testing and quarantine protocols;

  • Continue to implement and maintain sanitation and disinfection protocols; and

  • Minimize or eliminate touch points, such as hanging coats for passengers and other non-essential services.


The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, (AFA) AFL-CIO represents nearly 50,000 Flight Attendants at 17 airlines. AFA is the union that has advanced the Flight Attendant profession for 75 years, beating back discrimination and improving wages, benefits, working conditions, and aviation safety, health and security in the aircraft cabin. AFA also partners with the 700,000-member strong Communications Workers of America (CWA), AFL-CIO. Visit us at

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