The same week there were several studies in the news that showed airline travel was safe from COVID-19, an article in USA today highlighted that this safety is not absolute. This reinforces the concerns currently being faced by airline passengers.
This report details a troubling outbreak of COVID-19 on a flight from Doha to Dublin Ireland. The original paper, published in the Journal of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, documented that 13 of 49 passengers on this almost 8 hour flight to Dublin, including a child, were infected with COVID-19. After those individuals arrived in Ireland 46 other people who came in contact with them develop the infection. Several of the infections involved significant symptoms with four of the individuals being hospitalized and one requiring treatment in the intensive care unit.
While it is possible that these passengers were infected before they got on the airplane, for example in a lounge, it is likely that the infection occurred in-flight. It is also interesting that this event occurred in July after airlines had taken significant safety precautions. Several of the infected individuals were wearing masks and were not seated next to another affected passengers on the flight, or for that matter even appeared to be in close contact with them. This Qatar airlines flight was a jumbo jet with only 49 people aboard!
Added to this, it turns out the 187 page report from the Harvard School of Public Health that gave a clean bill of health on airline travel was sponsored by…the airlines. HSPH did attest to their independence in their findings.
Do I think it is safe to fly? Generally yes, especially on airlines that are keeping the middle seat empty. That having been said, there may be unique situations that put people at risk. In the Dublin flight was it a specific super spreader event where a single individual infected most of the passengers? Does transmission require a long international flight? None of these issues are resolved in the European Journal article.
Regardless, this does suggest you can get COVID-19 from air travel.