How safe is flying during COVID-19?
December 8, 2020
Now that the first COVID-19 vaccine has been given in Great Britain, it’s tempting to jump ahead a few months and act as if life can return to normal and traveling is safe. But don’t jump the gun just yet. Weigh your options, especially when it comes to flying.
On the CDC’s Know Your Travel Risk web page, the agency issued in bold letters a clear warning: “Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
That said, there are ways to mitigate the dangers of traveling during a pandemic. The first of these is, of course, to wear a mask for the duration of the trip, and this means wearing it properly over the nose and mouth. Maintain at least 6 feet of distance from other people. This includes traveling to the transportation hub, especially if you use public transport to get there.
In crowded areas such as airports, bus stations, and train stations, this can be almost impossible to maintain. Air travel requires standing in security lines and coming in contact with frequently used surfaces.
COVID-19 transmission risk increases the longer you’re sharing an enclosed space with someone who has it, whether they have symptoms or not. Airlines have touted the safety of the industry’s flights, citing a Department of Defense study and one by Harvard. One of those reports suggested that a person would have to sit for 54 straight hours on a plane near someone with COVID-19 to catch it. Airlines also point to their insistence on mask wearing in-flight, the HVAC systems in planes that circulate and filter air frequently, the empty middle seat promises, and stepped-up cleaning and disinfecting aboard planes. Many airlines require passengers to fill out health questionnaires and have implemented touchless check-ins. Sounds good, right?
The studies airlines point to have limitations. They were conducted assuming all passengers and crew were masked during the entire flight. They also assumed planes’ air-filtration systems were fully functional. But that is not always the case. Passengers remove masks during meals, even if they are compliant during the rest of the flight. And sometimes passengers outright refuse to wear a mask or wear it incorrectly, with nose exposed.
According to an article on COVID-19 flight safety published by Kaiser Health News, despite airline rules these people are rarely refused boarding. They often only risk future travel aboard the airline, which doesn’t help their fellow travelers on the flight in question. This is especially problematic on long flights. The longer you sit in a space with someone infected with COVID-19, the more likely you are to become infected.
In practice, social distancing may be impossible onboard a flight. Many airlines have dropped the empty middle seat promise. United dropped the policy in May, American Airlines dropped it in July, and Southwest stopped it December 1. Only Delta plans to continue to block the middle seat through March.
Mayo Clinic suggests weighing your flight options carefully. Consider whether or not COVID-19 is spreading at your destination. Do you have an underlying condition such as diabetes or obesity that puts you at risk, or are you over 65? Is someone you live with or with whom you plan to spend time at your destination at increased risk? You could be putting them at a higher risk of infection if you travel.
On The 11th Hour with Brian Williams before Thanksgiving, medical contributor to MSNBC, pulmonologist, and critical care doctor Vin Gupta urged travelers only to travel if they must. In that case, he suggested getting tested for COVID-19 on either end of the trip and quarantining at both ends. On the plane, wear a mask and consider covering your eyes with goggles or a face shield.
Take care to wash your hands as often as possible, maintain proper mask-wearing, and avoid touching surfaces, your face, and mask. Mayo Clinic suggests bringing a travel kit with a small bottle (12 oz.) of sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, extra cloth facemasks, and a thermometer. Pulmonologist This will help keep you as safe as possible if you fly.
The CDC emphasizes that the safest thing to do is to stay home. If you do travel, reconsider air travel and opt for short trips with no stops via car or longer trips in camper vehicles.
- CDC’s Know Your Travel Risk https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-risk.html
- Mayo Clinic’s Coronavirus travel advice https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-safe-travel-advice/art-20486965