Garrick Blalock is an associate professor of applied economics and policy at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Vrinda Kadiyali is a professor of economics and marketing at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Daniel H. Simon is an associate professor of public policy at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
With the pace of vaccinations increasing and spring break approaching, interest in travel is growing. However, the covid-19 pandemic continues to make travel dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering requiring a negative coronavirus test for domestic flights. While staying home is safest, some will choose to risk travel. For those who will go, what is the safest form? In particular, are we better off driving or flying?
Over the past few months, many have argued that, because of the dangers of transmission in the enclosed space of a plane, driving is safer than flying. However, we believe that, at least for Americans under the age of 65 (and almost certainly for those even older), flying is safer than driving. It’s not even close.
The risk of dying of covid-19 contracted on an airplane flight depends on two calculations: the probability of being infected while flying and the probability of dying of covid-19 once you’re infected. We know a lot more about the second number, so we will begin there.
The likelihood of someone under 65 dying of covid-19 is vanishingly small. Calculations from CDC data on confirmed covid cases as of March 11 show the probability of dying for someone under 65 who has contracted the virus is 1 in 257, or about 0.39 percent.
There is reason to believe the actual probabilities are far lower. The CDC estimates that we detect only 1 in every 4.6 coronavirus infections, which reduces the fatality risk for those under 65 to about 1 in 1,200.
This to the first question — how likely is anyone to contract the coronavirus while flying? Although that figure is difficult to estimate precisely, there are reasons to believe it is surely lower — much lower — than 1 percent.
Notably, an analysis led by MIT professor Arnold Barnett, using data from September 2020, found that the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus from another passenger was 1 in 3,900 (or 0.03 percent) for a flight with every seat occupied and about 1 in 6,400 (0.02 percent) for a flight with the middle seats unoccupied. Though new, potentially more transmissible strains of the virus have been discovered since September, it’s unlikely that these new strains would be so much more transmissible as to change our conclusion.
So how does this compare to the risk of driving? We have no data on coronavirus infections being transmitted in cars, but it seems very likely that people taking a road trip together are not strangers, so traveling together would not increase their risk of catching the coronavirus. The big risk of the road trip is a fatal car accident. Fortunately, the likelihood of that occurring is pretty low: On a 500-mile road trip, the risk of dying is about 1.2 in 200,000 (0.0006 percent).
However, the risk of dying in an airplane crash is far lower — it’s close to zero. But what about the risk of getting infected with the coronavirus while flying and then dying as a result?
As noted above, the covid-19 mortality risk for people under 65 is about 1 in 1,200. Combine that with the analysis from MIT showing that the likelihood of contracting the virus while flying is, at most, about 1 in 3,900, and it means that the probability of dying of covid that you contracted while flying is less than 1 in 4.7 million. In other words, flying is safer than driving — much safer.
Some final points. First, while covid-19 fatality rates increase steadily with age, automobile fatality rates are highest for the youngest and oldest drivers. For drivers under 30, that rate is about double the national average. This makes flying that much more of a no-brainer for them.
Second, we recognize that air passengers might also be infected in airline terminals and shuttles, but road-trippers have similarly hard-to-quantify risks at rest stops and motels.
Third, well-intentioned regulations such as a testing or vaccination requirement for domestic flights can have unintended consequences. Research that we conducted after 9/11 showed that tightening airport security measures reduced domestic air travel by about 5 percent. One consequence was that by the end of 2002 at least 1,200 additional driving deaths resulted from many Americans choosing to drive rather than fly.
When facing an invisible threat such as covid-19, sometimes we make irrational decisions, such as driving rather than flying, because it gives us the illusion of control. But this can be a deadly illusion.
To paraphrase the Who, let’s not get fooled again. If you choose to travel during the pandemic, flying is the still the safest option.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
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