“Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.” Those are the words of the CDC. Traveling right now is fraught with risks and it does not look like it’s going to get better any time soon in the U.S. Getting on a plane right now means unequivocally putting yourself and others at risk in five places: at home, in the departure airport, on the plane, in the destination airport, and at your destination.
To be crystal clear, it’s far too fraught to endorse any person flying right now for non-essential purposes. Still, people do have to fly for real reasons (like medical professionals who are traveling to places with COVID-19 spikes to help out). And with flying up 400% from its lowest point in the pandemic, people are obviously flying for less urgent reasons too. For anyone making a decision to fly, you have to anticipate contending with a certain number of mask contrarians and pandemic conspiracy theorists.
To help mitigate the risks involved in flying right now, we first went to the CDC for their advice.
The CDC says:
- “Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”
To expand on those guidelines, we reached out to working epidemiologists for a little more clarity. Our panel of experts is:
- Martine El Bejjani, Ph.D. Neuro-Epidemiology, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon
- Steve Mooney, Ph.D. Epidemiology, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA
- Marilyn Tseng, Ph.D. Epidemiology, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Public Health at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA
We tried to keep this as clearcut as possible to get pertinent information to you directly.
What would you say is the best thing to avoid at the airport if you do have to fly?
Prof. Martine El Bejjani: The best thing to avoid is the airport itself.
I want to start by saying that flying is a risky business in this pandemic. I truly understand the need to travel, be it to escape, to be reunited with loved ones, for work, or just to gain some sense of normalcy and fun. But it is fundamentally difficult and risky and should be avoided and postponed if possible because it won’t allow you to escape the pandemic. It actually puts travelers in high-risk exposure in a super uncontrolled environment with large crowds and several transactions to do.
One crucial thing to note here is when traveling, someone will be carrying their original location’s exposure and the plane/airport’s exposure to their destination (so if they are reuniting with family, they will be bringing to them these risks, and similarly on the way back). That means a lot of movement of uncontrollable risk. Also, a smart way to start is to get all information required by airlines or your destination (especially if going to another country) regarding flight regulations and requirements (some destinations require testing to be done before or upon landing) and to have information about how COVID is spreading in your origin and destination locations.
To answer your question, the way to travel safely would be to upscale the usual measures and be hyper-vigilant given the higher risk that airport and flying entail. So, I would be wearing a mask (and having extra masks to go), extra cautious about not touching my face, hyper-vigilant about hand hygiene. That means avoiding at all cost touching surfaces and making sure to wash my hands and carry sanitizers to sanitize my hands following every interaction/transaction (even giving my passport or boarding pass to custom or flight agents). It also means being hyper-vigilant about keeping distance in the sea of strangers. One more recommendation would be to speak up if things are getting too crazy. For instance, ask other people nicely in security or boarding lines to keep their distance and share your concerns with other flyers or flight attendants or agents — a risk reduction for one is a risk reduction for many.
Prof. Steve Mooney: I think in general, it’s the same as anywhere else. Try to stay away from other people, keep a mask on as much as possible, wash hands often.
Prof. Marilyn Tseng: Based on what we know about transmission of COVID-19, the thing to avoid anywhere is closed spaces with close contact with lots of people. I would say that at airports, as anywhere else public, it would be best to be in open spaces away from other people, and if there are other people, they should be keeping their breath and saliva to themselves — that is wearing masks and not yelling or talking loudly.
What would you say is the best thing to avoid while on the plane?
Prof. Martine El Bejjani: Not removing the mask and not touching surfaces. I would make sure to disinfect my tablet and seat, and just be hyper-vigilant about what I am touching, especially around the bathroom. It’s probably smart to disinfect hands even after washing them if you had to touch the bathroom door again. Touching the luggage bins, or even what is served on the plane, it is important to carry hand sanitizers and have the reflex to disinfect your hands after every movement/transaction. Of course, I would avoid getting close to other flyers.
Prof. Steve Mooney: Prior to the pandemic, I wouldn’t think twice about eating or drinking while on the plane. As much as possible, I’d now avoid anything that would involve taking off a mask where I might be sharing air with another person.
Prof. Marilyn Tseng: Again, the general guideline is as much as possible to be in open spaces away from other people. There really is no open space on an airplane, so the next best thing is maintaining space between you and others and making sure that everyone is keeping breath and saliva to themselves. One location of the airplane that is more closed-space is the toilet, so that might be one of the things to avoid on an airplane. Given the constraints of air travel, another thing to be more careful about than usual is avoiding touching your own face.
Is paying for an extra seat between you and another passenger — similar to what Frontier Air is offering — going to make a difference?
Prof. Martine El Bejjani: I think so. Social distancing is very important. This should be offered by all airlines. Flights shouldn’t be booked to capacity. They should be booked in a way to ensure the safety of all travelers.
Prof. Steve Mooney: I’d definitely defer to the engineers who understand air circulation within planes. But from first principles, it does seem like increasing distances should decrease the shared air, which should reduce transmission risk.
Prof. Marilyn Tseng: I know that I personally would feel uncomfortable sitting right next to someone on a plane at a time when COVID-19 cases are still rising in the US. But we really don’t have enough research to know how much of a difference it makes, if any, to have an empty seat in between. The issue is that you and the other person, whether right next to you or with a seat in between (but still within 6’), are sharing the same air space for the length of the flight.
What concerns you the most when you arrive somewhere? What would you recommend as a post-flight routine?
Prof. Martine El Bejjani: My biggest concern would be the exposure from the flight and airport. So I would stick with a long quarantine (14 days from the time of arrival), especially if I am flying to see other people. It’s too stressful to think that I can carry a risk to them, especially older relatives or people at risk from complications, or people who have been working so hard to avoid the infection, I wouldn’t want to undo all their sacrifices!
Prof. Steve Mooney: I think I’d focus on getting to a place where I could wash my hands, take off my travel clothes, take off my mask, eat and drink, and generally take a deep breath and relax.
Prof. Marilyn Tseng: I haven’t traveled by air since the pandemic, but generally, I’d recommend at least a very good handwashing, and maybe also a change of clothes and shower just to feel better.