Even if people are less likely to contract Covid on board a plane than in other environments, airline executives would be enormously foolish to downplay any risks Omicron provides — especially as they don’t know how much more the variant could cripple the industry.
The medical advisor for the International Air Transport Association has sounded a cautious note about flying since the emergence of the Omicron variant, unlike several major U.S. airline executives who had downplayed risks of contracting Covid while flying.
“The relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or catching a bus has increased,” said David Powell, who added that more densely packed economy cabins provide a greater risk to passengers than those in business class. Powell made his remarks in statement from IATA on Wednesday.
“Whatever the risk was with Delta, we would have to assume the risk would be two to three times greater with Omicron, just as we’ve seen in other environments. Whatever that low risk — we don’t know what it is — on the airplane, it must be increased by a similar amount.
Powell’s statements counters recent statements from three prominent U.S. airline CEOs — American Airlines’ Doug Parker, United Airlines’ Scott Kirby, and Southwest Airlines’ Gary Kelly. They had all expressed support at a Senate committe hearing earlier this month for dropping federal masks mandates on airplanes, arguing that cabin air is safer than that in other indoor venues because it is more thoroughly filtered.
However, Kelly tested posted for Covid a day after speaking at the hearing maskless. He later backtracked on his statements at the hearing, telling Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, that he supports the federal mask mandate.
While IATA released a statement on Wednesday staying that aircraft cabins pose a low risk environment for contracting Covid, the organization did call on travelers to continue wearing masks on planes due to Omicron being more transmissible than other variants.