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Airlines and information

Summary:
Airlines are in big trouble. Even after reopening, nobody wants to fly, perceiving them as dangerous.But are airline flights dangerous? As I read the super-spreading literature, I have not seen a single case of an airline flight charged with spreading the virus. (Please chime in if you have seen any documented cases of virus spread ...

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Airlines are in big trouble. Even after reopening, nobody wants to fly, perceiving them as dangerous.

But are airline flights dangerous? As I read the super-spreading literature, I have not seen a single case of an airline flight charged with spreading the virus. (Please chime in if you have seen any documented cases of virus spread on airline flights.) That's remarkable. From January to March, people were flying all over the world. People were flying from Wuhan to all over the world. But while we have seen super spreading events in restaurants, bars, cruise ships, aircraft carriers, nursing homes, jails, beach parties, Mardi Gras, choir practice, and more, I have not seen one from an airline flight. Even though people are cooped up for hours in close quarters.

One can speculate why. Airliners actually have very good ventilation systems and hospital grade HEPA filters. Except for the occasional chatty seat mate with cat videos to show, people are usually completely silent. Talking loudly seems to be a big part of spreading the virus. An airline with reasonable extra precautions, such as taking temperatures, certifying no symptoms (and you get your money back if you say you have symptoms, please), masks, wipe downs, is likely safer still. The worry may be for nothing.

But how will we know? Now I get to the point. In the tens, and probably eventually hundred or more billion dollars our government is spending to prop up airlines, how about 1 billion for research on the question, is an airline flight safe? For a billion dollars we ought to be able to answer this question definitively in about a week. Actually 10 million -- 1/1,000 of the money our government will shovel out to boost airlines -- ought to do the trick. If I'm right, that would do more good than an MMTers dream of stimulus.



This is part of a larger issue. Yes, I'd love a vaccine. Yes, I'd love widely available cheap tests and a public health infrastructure that can do something useful with test results. Well, we have what we have. But the government can still subsidize science. And it can still promulgate useful information. Yes, the airlines could pay for it, but in our politicized age nobody trusts science on logic and data anymore, they just look for who paid for it. So that won't work.

Spend 1 week and $10 million. Find out if air travel is safe or not. Tell us the answer. If as I suspect the answer is that you're about as likely to catch corona virus on an airplane as you are to die in an airline crash, then let us know.

Recovery without second wave depends on up-to-date accurate information on how the virus spreads -- and how it does not spread.

Update:

Or maybe this is a job for the FAA. After all, they seem to have the time on their hands to regulate American Airlines hand sanitizers, and air safety is their concern.

(Off topic, but I think Tyler and Gary Leff failed to see the bright side on this one. Yes, it seems a bit dumb that American Airlines has to ask the FAA to sign off on its hand sanitizers. But Tyler forgets just how bad the regulatory state can be. Yes, American does have its very own "local office of a federal agency dedicated to your business, with its own letterhead."  But that is a whole lot better than the usual -- 5 different regulatory agencies, each with 10 offices, nobody able to give a final yes, but all happy to stop a project going forward. If only there were a single office for home rehab in Palo Alto, where you can get a straight answer on anything in a week! Bureaucracy can be much worse than the FAA. )

A clarification

I response to a comment, suggesting that putting sick people on a plane might be hard to get through IRB review. I didn't have that in mind. But surely the kind of ex-post sleuthing that revealed the other super spreader events came from specific restaurants can be used. Take passenger lists of planes in January, and match them against Covid data, for example.

On flight attendants. They, like bus drivers, bear a substantial risk. Even if an airplane is not a super spreader, where lots of people get together and all have a chance of getting it, one individual who contacts many others during a day is at particular risk. However, first, this is not really the central public health concern. The public health concern is to get the reproduction rate under one. Small groups, no matter how heroic, who are susceptible, don't add a lot to the reproduction rate. Second, like doctors, they are well trained professionals. It's possible to run hospitals where doctors don't get sick. As is already happening, the main key is just to reduce contact between flight attendants and passengers. They really are there only for a crash, now sit down be quiet and don't breathe hard. Third, the point of the post is how to get people on airlines, not how to get flight attendants on airlines.

From a correspondent: quoting science magazine on Japan's experience
Not surprisingly, they found that most clusters originated in gyms, pubs, live music venues, karaoke rooms, and similar establishments where people gather, eat and drink, chat, sing, and work out or dance, rubbing shoulders for relatively extended periods of time. 
But commuter train travel reflects similar realities to airplane travel and didn't spread on Japan's commuter trains:

Reassuringly, they did not trace any clusters to Japan’s notoriously packed commuter trains. Oshitani says riders are usually alone and not talking to other passengers. And lately, they are all wearing masks. “An infected individual can infect others in such an environment, but it must be rare,” he says. He says Japan would have seen large outbreaks traced to trains if airborne transmission of the virus was possible.

A note: 

Of course there is a worry about all travel -- that's how places are seeded that have gotten rid of the virus. Nothing special about airplanes here, and in fact whatever testing and screening airplanes do may be helpful to stop that. Also if there were, for the $5 trillion we're spending, anyone in the government doing tracing, it's a lot easier to figure out who is on a plane and where they came from and where they're going than if people go in cars and RVs.
John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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