Air Force One's million-dollar defenses can't stop mask-less passengers from spreading COVID-19


The iconic blue-and-white Boeing 747 that's supposed to keep President Donald Trump safe in the air may have been where he contracted COVID-19.

Trump most recently flew on Air Force One on Wednesday, returning to Washington from a celebratory rally in Duluth, Minnesota, following a contentious debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden the day before. Also aboard was Hope Hicks, a senior member of the president's staff, who was showing COVID-19 symptoms during the trip, according to The New York Times, and who tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

Hicks was reportedly isolated for the near-three-hour flight and used a separate door to disembark upon arrival back at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. The next day, Trump took a US Marine Corps helicopter, known as "Marine One" when he's aboard, and a smaller jet to Bedminister, New Jersey, giving the Boeing 747 a rest for the day. 

Trump has been using the military's fleet of modified Boeing 747 and 757 aircraft, designated by the military as VC-25As and C-32s, respectively, to travel the country on the campaign trail. He typically holds evening rallies at airports, so he can get in and out easily, while using the aircraft as a backdrop. 

Aboard Air Force One

The flying White House that first flew President George H.W. Bush and had its defenses upgraded after September 11, 2001, features an onboard medical suite, state-of-the-art communications, and mid-air refueling capabilities. It can even withstand a nearby nuclear blast.

Though the exact specifications of the aircraft are confidential, it's likely that the US Air Force has upgraded its air filtration and circulation system to match or exceed the ones found on modern airliners, according to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. The Air Force, after all, was going to spend $24 million on a refrigerator for the plane in 2018, the Air Force Times reported.

Unlike a traditional Boeing 747, Air Force One seats just 71 passengers in a VIP configuration with a massive interior that lends itself to physical distancing. With so many opportunities for safety amid a pandemic, the possibility of Trump contracting COVID-19 aboard the aircraft would seem slim. 

trump Air Force one
Trump on Air Force One in 2017 — before masks were advised on planes.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

But what Air Force One can't defend against is passengers who don't wear masks during a pandemic, who may have contributed to the virus' transmission from Hicks to Trump. 

Masks have been touted by public health experts as a simple, effective way to reduce transmitting the virus to others while everyone waits for a vaccine.

"All we really have to protect ourselves are these physical, non-pharmaceutical interventions: masks, washing your hands, and trying to position yourself so that you're not in crowds where you might become exposed," James Le Duc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, one of the nation's largest university bio-containment facilities, told Business Insider. 

The United States Air Force's 89th Airlift Wing did not answer inquiries about Air Force One's mask policies before publication but, as The New York Times reported, aides to Trump, including Hicks, are generally hesitant to wear masks around Trump "in deference to the president's disdain for them."

Video from Bloomberg showed Hicks and other staffers boarding Air Force One behind Trump on Wednesday without a mask.

COVID-19 flies private, too

High-efficiency particulate air filters and air circulation systems help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus inside commercial airliners and, when combined with face covering requirements, have largely stopped aerial outbreaks.

"When we're inside, I think we've got a pretty good circulation of air that, at least on the airplanes, where it goes through HEPA filters, that are likely to reduce the risk of any airborne transmission significantly," said Le Duc, who was previously was the influenza coordinator and director of the Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control.

Recent data from the big three US airlines showing low incidence rates among flight attendants show that the risk of contracting COVID-19 while flying is very low when face coverings are worn by all passengers. All major US airlines require their passengers and customer-facing employees to wear face coverings. A growing number of airports are latching on to the trend. 

Private planes are generally thought to be safer, because they don't require passengers to use crowded airports, or sit in crowded cabins. Air Force One, basically a private jet for the US government, is no different.

"One thing that works in favor of private planes is that the number of people is reduced compared to commercial flights, in most cases," Sirish Namilae, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told Business Insider. 

But there are downsides, too. On a plane like Air Force One, passengers have more freedom to move around and are more likely to be chatting with their seat mates than on a typical commercial flight. That could increase the potential risk of spreading the coronavirus.

So, masking up is key to reduce the number of water droplets coming from one's mouth and nose, which can get in the air and linger for hours. 

"What would be very effective — whether it is in a private plane or commercial plane — is the wearing of masks that can reduce the spread," Namilae said. 

It's a hassle, especially on long flights, but both Namilae and Le Duc emphasized the vitality of wearing a mask. 

"These are the tools we have today," Le Duc said. "We just need to be using them. And it doesn't matter whether you're on an airplane or wherever, this is all we have. The virus has no personality and has no preference. It just wants to replicate. The risk is equal opportunity risk."