If you’re on an airliner packed with masked passengers, why don’t you get Covid-19 when your middle seat neighbor removes the mask to eat or drink?

A variety of U.S. airlines are going the full cattle car route, right? (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2020/06/16/american-airlines-the-magic-of-air-travel-in-the-age-of-corona/ )

The theory is that the magic of masks will protect the 150 people on a 150-person Boeing or Airbus from giving each other the plague. (As a friend notes “If a bandana is effective PPE for Covid, then a saline injection is surely an effective vaccine.”)

Suppose that you’re on one of these Plague Special flights. The person sitting next to you is infected with coronavirus. You’re wearing a surgeon’s mask, which provides almost no protection for inhaling. Your infected neighbor removes his/her/zir/their bandana to drink some coffee or eat a sandwich. That’s not prohibited, right? Why don’t you get coronaplague during the 15 minutes that it takes your middle seat neighbor to eat/drink?

Suppose it is a six-hour coast-to-coast flight. Your exposure to your unmasked middle seat neighbor might be a full 30 minutes. Isn’t that long enough to transmit any virus?


26 thoughts on “If you’re on an airliner packed with masked passengers, why don’t you get Covid-19 when your middle seat neighbor removes the mask to eat or drink?

  1. Why did the bagel shop refuse to sell unmasked me bagels to go this morning when there was a guy eating a bagel at a table 5 feet behind me?
    Could it be the masks are about submission and humiliation and safety has nothing to do with it? I’ll have to check pubmed for a study to see if my theory checks out.
    For all the folks who wear masks, antiviral buttplugs are the future preventive measure necessary to save the world. You’ve already proven your willingness to submit to humiliating nonsense you will go along with it. And if you can’t afford to buy one the CDC will post instructions on making your own at home.

    • @GB: I was afraid to search for antiviral buttplugs. I didn’t find any – so you may be right, it looks like a completely untapped market. Glowing fidget spinner buttplugs are kind of played out at this point, though, so someone is bound to do it just to keep the product fresh and attuned to the times.

      NSFW: Etsy’s sale on glowing fidget spinner buttplugs (Google it yourself, so that Google knows you’re interested. Or maybe use DuckDuckGo, so your search doesn’t appear during a congressional investigation). Make them out of copper and you can claim they’re naturally antiviral. They might be a little awkward on an airplane, though.

  2. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound good. Sitting two feet from someone who is eating and drinking, fumbling with their mask, or just exhaling regularly and coughing once or twice to clear their throat, it sounds like there’s no way to avoid being exposed.

    Today there’s a story about a woman in China who infected 71 people after taking a 60 second trip on an elevator, just in case people aren’t freaked out enough yet. I don’t know how anyone sitting next to an asymptomatic carrier on a plane is going to reliably avoid the virus, and the contact tracing will be difficult. And Kolmos’ suggestions (the 5 step list at the end of your related link) mean that boarding and disembark will take longer than ever. And people will have to be incredibly fastidious about using hand sanitizer.


    Meanwhile, Southwest airlines says that it needs triple the current number of passengers by year’s end to avoid furloughs:

    “Although furloughs and layoffs remain our very last resort, we can’t rule them out as a possibility in this really bad environment,” he said. “We need a significant recovery by the end of this year, and that’s roughly triple the number of passengers from where we are today.”


    How airlines are going to handle this risk, or whether their passengers will tolerate it, is anyone’s guess. A year from now I wonder how many airlines will be left to fly anyone, anywhere.

    What about Greyhound buses? They require masks for everyone onboard (and the buses are usually more densely packed than planes). So if you’re on a long trip, everyone’s going to be on the bus with sopping-wet facemasks by the time they get to the destination. I don’t see how this cuts down the risk of anything.


    Bottom line is: we’re doomed. Drive a car. By yourself.

    • Come to think of it, I’m surprised nobody has done any thinking about the spread of coronavirus via Greyhound bus, particularly because of the demographic they serve: people who usually don’t have the money to fly *or* drive. You’re packed on a bus with maybe 50 other people. You can’t open the windows, so the cabin air is recirculating to some degree, and you’re on the bus for hours at a time between rest stops, wearing your soggy face rag. Then you stop at a rest stop with who knows what kind of sanitation, fumble with your mask, touch all kinds of stuff, etc.

      Their website virtual tour was obviously filmed in the pre-COVID era: nobody is wearing masks!

      I don’t want to blame Greyhound. It seems like they’re doing everything they reasonably can, but it’s a very difficult scenario.


    • @PaulB: Correct-emundo! Now go one step further: casinos are reopening (they just reopened in MA and have been open in CT for several weeks now). Who takes trips to casinos on buses? Senior citizens. How do Senior Centers arrange sightseeing/shopping/leisure trips for their patrons? They rent buses.

      Bus transportation in America therefore serves some of the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the financially strapped, immigrants, and those who have no other alternatives. The tickets are relatively cheap, and therefore the bus lines don’t have a tremendous amount of money to burn on medical-grade cleanliness and hygiene. I doubt they will even spend as much per passenger as airlines.

      And Greyhound is just the tip of the proverbial busberg: there are over 100 charter bus lines operating in America, and each one of them is going to have its own procedures and protocols (or lack thereof.)

      I don’t know whether you’ve ever ridden on a Greyhound bus, but I have on many occasions. I don’t mean to be unkind, but you can meet some funky people on a Greyhound bus at 2:30 in the morning at the station in Cleveland, Ohio. Sometimes they don’t care too much about hygiene, they’re just trying to get where they’re going, wherever that may be.

    • Hi Alex, Excellent points, esp about Vegas and all of the charter bus lines. I have ridden on Greyhound and I share your assessment.

    • Just bought an airplane. Flying commercial sucks, and is going to get a lot more expensive as airlines will be struggling to deal with sharply reduced demand, to the point that travel in a piston a/c will make economic sense.

  3. I see the same thing at Starbucks here in Austin. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that the government has discovered that eating and drinking eradicates viruses for as long as you have food or drink in front of you and occasionally consume some.

  4. Welcome to 1900! No planes, trains, buses or for-hire automobiles. I liked the 20th century much better. We CAN still watch the 1% on screens.

  5. You’re right. This is a major hole in the defenses.

    Best you can do is keep your N95/KN95 mask on for the entire flight and hope for the best. This will reduce your risk, compared to maskless, but by how much is not clearly known. Also depends on fit, etc.

    It would be interesting to see statistics on flight attendants who have contracted Covid in the US. If the risk is high, you’d think they’d be infected at a high rate.

    • Early on they were saying that all the fresh air blowing around a pressurized airplane cabin made transmission unlikely. It would be interesting to hear if we have more data now.

    • I thought for a while that the risk was pretty high because there was a known SARS superspreading event on an airplane:

      Apparently this was atypical though, and the passengers probably weren’t wearing masks (I’m not sure exactly at what point in the outbreak they became popular).

  6. In the event middle seat neighbor removes the mask to eat or drink, oxygen masks automatically descend from the ceiling. Grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a child travelling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs.

    • Henry: But medical staff have N95 masks plus the professional fitters to set up each person with the “best out of 6” different styles. The average American consumer has a bandana or similar. You’re saying that the answer is N95 masks for everyone on every flight? And a synchronized protocol so that no more than one person in any given area of the plane will be demasked at any one time?

    • I suspect most medical staff particularly in the northeast this past spring had to make do with whatever N/KN95 they could get their hands on. I’m sure they were better fitted than the average person would do but given stories of shortages (continuing to present) I doubt they had their usual choice.

    • Colin: Now that you mention it, all of the “frontline” hospital workers whom I know in NYC had plenty of PPE and they ended up with… plenty of coronavirus (mild cases, typically resulting in about 3 weeks paid time off). I wonder if medical staff don’t get cold/flu from every coughing patient for the same reason that most people don’t spend the entire winter suffering from cold/flu, i.e., the human immune system.

    • Philg – N95s are still pretty tightly controlled after 7 months into this thing. And you get what is available not what fits the best. The states that have decided to switch to the Swedish model have not helped things in that regard. And yes, the surgical mask does help keeping me from spreading at the supermarket should the N95 have failed a few days earlier.

      Also – regarding the middle seat: I thought that is why you have that nice Pilatus. I know it is rough compared to those Gulfsteams it has to share ramps with but it would get you safely to those places that you were advertising as doing great a little while back.

    • This is what the typical healthcare worker in New York was equipped with:

      Here’s a story about a nurse whose job it was to run codes (i.e. make patients spew a high volume of viruses everywhere by doing chest compressions) who died after not being given an N95 mask:

      Healthcare workers seem to have worse outcomes than members of the general public, likely because the viral dosage is so high.

    • Ryan: Dramatic Fall of Saigon stories are certainly what I would expect from our media, but all of the workers I personally know who got Covid-19 and/or were working in Manhattan hospitals said that they never ran out of N95 masks to use and could take as many as they needed. (Same situation here in Boston. MGH (“the massive genital”) never ran out of PPE. They were the main Covid-19 hospital, I think.)

  7. “The theory is that the magic of masks will protect the 150 people on a 150-person Boeing or Airbus from giving each other the plague.”

    This is only your own idiotic theory.

  8. Can you catch virus from cats? i have 14 at home. I’m afraid to travel at all. Of course masks don’t work. Any place you can get air into your lungs you can get virus into your lungs. That’s just the facts. And if you have a nose-picking obsession, don’t laugh it’s an actual psychological problem I’m working on, but I cannot keep my hands off my face or out of my nose. I’m a goner.

  9. >*That’s not prohibited, right? Why don’t you get coronaplague during the 15 minutes that it takes your middle seat neighbor to eat/drink?*

    Because virus transmission doesn’t work that way. You get an increased risk, but only analogous to the time you eat vs total flight time.

    >*Suppose it is a six-hour coast-to-coast flight. Your exposure to your unmasked middle seat neighbor might be a full 30 minutes. Isn’t that long enough to transmit any virus?*

    No. It’s just an increased risk, but still smaller than 6 hours total without mask.

    It’s what we call “cost/benefit analysis” taking into account that “masks are good, but people still need to eat something”.

    You don’t magically become infected as soon (or soon after) someone takes off their mask. You just increase your chances. They also have to cough or sneeze at you, particles of the virus to land on you, and they also need to get inside your body (through your nose/mouth or eyes). If they land on your back or your hair they can’t do anything to infect you (unless you then touch your hair, and then e.g. carry it to your mouth/nose/etc). It’s a virus, it’s not living, nor does it reproduce outside the body.

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