Rashida Fathima’s anxiety levels spiked as she boarded the red-eye flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong with her family. COVID-19 cases were surging in India, and the plane was packed almost to capacity.
Within two weeks of landing, Mrs. Fathima, her husband and two children tested positive for the coronavirus at their quarantine hotel. More than a third of the passengers on flight UK6395—52 so far—have tested positive, the most from any plane arriving in the city. The cluster is stirring debate among health experts in Hong Kong over how they got infected, and highlights the struggle facing the aviation industry as it seeks to get people traveling again.
Speaking from the hospital, Mrs. Fathima said she feared her family picked up the infections on the April 3 journey, despite wearing masks almost the entire time and avoiding using the restrooms on board.
Some passengers—including one in the same row—coughed repeatedly during the six-hour flight, people took masks off to eat, and some parents walked their crying children up and down the aisle, she said.
The airline and the organizers of the chartered flight told The Wall Street Journal that they did everything possible to minimize potential transmission.
Vistara airline, run by Tata SIA Airlines Ltd., said it ensures “strict compliance with all guidelines issued by the Indian as well as the destination countries’ authorities for all flights.”
Experts say that plane travel is generally safe. But even with the best precautions there are risks associated, as coronavirus cases continue to soar in some parts of the world and with young children not yet eligible for vaccination.
There could, for example, have been passengers with particularly virulent strains of the virus. Being packed in tightly, no matter how good the ventilation, puts certain passengers in the way of potential infection through respiratory particles from people sitting nearby or on surfaces in restrooms. And there is the risk of the virus spreading at airports before and after flying.
Other possibilities being discussed by health experts include whether travelers became infected at quarantine hotels in Hong Kong after arrival, or a failure by India’s overloaded health system to accurately detect cases before the passengers left—though only four tested positive on arrival.