The positive coronavirus test for a high-profile Air Force One passenger raises the possibility that has concerned aviation experts for months: that the virus can easily spread inside a confined aircraft cabin.
Experts fear the infection potentially puts at risk hundreds of people who travel on, operate and maintain “the flying White House” — threatening not only a highly recognizable icon of America, but also the smooth operation of a key national security tool used to evacuate the president in a crisis.
Administration officials said Friday that presidential senior adviser Hope Hicks was showing coronavirus symptoms while she flew on the world’s most famous jet earlier this week, raising the concern her infection could be linked to the infections of President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.
Experts have cautioned that during the pandemic, the unique air flow dynamics in the confined cabin of a jetliner — even one as large as the Boeing 747-200, known in the military as a VC-25 — could put unmasked passengers at a risk of catching the deadly virus.
Administration officials said Friday that Hicks began displaying symptoms on the flight back from the President’s Wednesday rally in Minnesota and was isolated in a separate cabin. She was seen deplaning Air Force One from a rear set of steps not typically used by the President.
“Social distancing is much easier on Air Force One than any commercial airliner,” said Professor Yan Chen of Purdue University, a researcher who studies the airborne spread of coronavirus inside an airliner. Chen said most passengers do not sit in cramped rows on board the multi-room, highly modified jet, “but complete isolation is very difficult.”
Chen said the air onboard large jets, including commercial airliners and Air Force One, is typically filtered through High Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA, filters, which are designed to catch most particles. The result is the air even on large planes is completely replaced every few minutes.
Air Force One also carries a special onboard oxygen system, although its capabilities aren’t clear.
Commercial airlines insist air filters make flying in a plane safer than sitting in a shared room in a building. But it does not eliminate the risk of contracting the virus when a contagious passenger is onboard.
“If you have a patient inside of an airplane, then the droplets breathed out by this patient could be transported in the airplane,” he said.
The White House said the 747 typically used as Air Force One (the term can refer to any aircraft carrying the President) features “4,000 square feet of floor space on three levels, including an extensive suite for the President that features a large office, lavatory, and conference room.” CNN journalists who