Before you consider booking a flight, hear out these experts.

By Claire Gillespie
May 28, 2020
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Is it safe to fly right now? As summer approaches and vacation season begins, people are wondering—especially with the threat of COVID-19 still very real. Though states are reopening and many shops and restaurants are welcoming back customers, social distancing and face mask guidelines continue to be in place.

As things stand now, international air travel is definitely discouraged by the US government. Under the State Department's “Do Not Travel” advisory, American citizens are still urged to avoid all non-essential travel outside of the country due to the coronavirus. Additionally, most airlines are offering service overseas to just a few cities, like London and Tokyo. If you’re dreaming about escaping to Spain or Italy, these won't be options for a while yet—their borders remain closed to US travelers. 

When it comes to domestic air travel, advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is clear: “Because travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.” 

Despite both warnings, many people seem to be ready to board a plane again. In a recent survey of 3,500 people, Azurite Consulting found that 36% of international travelers who took a flight in 2019 won’t fly again until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. And 30% of domestic flyers will find other ways to travel domestically until that point. That suggests up to 70% of people are willing to get on an airplane. 

So the question remains: is air travel safe?

Right now, it's risky, according to infectious disease specialist Bruce Polsky, MD, chairman of medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital. “There's no getting around the crowds between walking through airports, TSA lines, and boarding lines," he tells Health. "And a vacant middle seat doesn't provide six feet of social distancing. Unless you really have to go, why would you?”

But those risks might be lessened thanks to protective measures airlines and airports are taking. Charles Bailey, MD, medical director of infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital and Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, tells Health that the risk of getting COVID-19 on an airplane “is probably low but not negligible.” At the moment, "the risk is likely reduced by all the risk mitigation measures that have been—and will be—put in place by airlines and airports as well as travelers' use of masks, social distancing, and making the decision to stay home if symptomatic,” says Dr. Bailey.

If I do fly, what precautions should I take in the airport? 

If you decide to fly—or an emergency crops up and you have no choice—you can take steps to lower your risk coronavirus infection. “The primary concern is to minimize your exposure to potentially infectious people,” Paloma Beamer, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona, tells Health. “Essentially, this means minimizing the number and duration of people in a six-foot bubble around you.” That means staying in uncrowded areas and waiting on line many feet away from others. 

The secondary concern is touching objects that may have previously been touched by an infectious person. "To minimize this route of exposure, wash your hands and use hand sanitizer frequently, especially after touching frequently contacted objects,” suggests Dr. Beamer, such as ticket kiosk screens. Everyone should wear a face mask, she adds, in case infectious particles are in the airport. Plus, it's a public courtesy to let other passengers know you're being as cautious as possible. 

What about going through security and boarding?

Typically, airport security involves long lines in front of checkpoints and lots of passing back and forth of passengers’ belongings. Updated security procedures from the Transport Security Administration (TSA) will be rolled out nationwide by mid-June, though some are in place already. If they don't have them in place, expect airports to have visual reminders of appropriate spacing on checkpoint floors and staggered lanes to facilitate social distancing. Passengers won’t be required to hand their boarding pass to the security agent; instead, they'll place it on the reader themselves then hold it up for the agent to inspect. 

All TSA officers will wear face masks and gloves, and passengers will be reminded to separate food, liquids, and electronics in the bins. They will also be asked to place belts, wallets, keys, and phones directly into their carry-on bags instead of into the bins, which will reduce touch points during the screening process. After you move through security, disinfect personal items like your ID and phone.

Social distancing will be harder during the boarding process, when your flight is in the air, and while deplaning, says Dr. Beamer. “If you are able to fly with an airline that is spacing passengers that would be better,” she advises. “If not, then try to get a window seat and stay put. This will expose you to a lot less people than if you were in an aisle seat or walking up and down the aisle.” 

What safety measures should I take in flight?

The advice and protocols for airline staff, some of which are provided by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), are extremely detailed. Every airline is coming up with its own strategy to keep passengers and staff safe during the pandemic, and the timetable as to when each step will be unrolled will vary. (You can always call the airline or check the website to find out.)

In general, most airlines have agreed to minimize the number of passengers per flight and space them out in the plane as much as possible, says Dr. Beamer. United Airlines promises to contact passengers about 24 hours before their departure time if they expect their flight to be fairly full, and they can change their flight (with no rescheduling fee) or receive a travel credit for their trip if they cancel it. 

Many airlines, including JetBlue and United, have said they’ll check the temperatures of their staff regularly (though it's unclear how often). JetBlue will check pilots and in-flight crew members, and United says they will check employees working at their hub airports. Only one airline, Frontier, has committed to taking passengers’ temperature—this will start on June 1. Most airlines believe it’s the government’s responsibility to carry out passenger health screenings. On May 21, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told the Dallas Morning News that his department is looking at temperature checks and thermal scanning at airports in an effort to see what could “provide some layer of security.”  

Practice good hygiene habits when you're on the plane, including wearing your mask, as well as disinfecting personal items and the area around you, such as your food tray and seat handles. Airlines are or will be instituting their own sanitary measures. “Airlines need to take very intensive preventative actions related to hygienic conditions, including cleaning between every flight or during flights,” adds Dr. Polsky.

To ensure good hygiene, United Airlines is providing hand sanitizer wipes to every passenger upon boarding and will provide "disposable face coverings to passengers who need them." Delta's customer care kit includes a disposable face mask and hand sanitizer gel pouches. However, Frontier says "make sure to bring a face mask with you," so doesn't appear to be providing them.

Many airlines, such as Delta, have revealed the plane-cleaning measures they’ll take, which includes electrostatic spraying (basically, a huge handheld device spraying powerful disinfectant onto every surface a passenger might touch). Airplanes already have high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters, which remove more than 99.99% of particles, including viruses, and mix the air in the cabin with fresh air from outside.

What about when food and drinks are served?

All airlines have—or will have—their own policy regarding food. For example, United Airlines has nixed the complimentary economy snack and beverage service on domestic flights scheduled for two hours and 20 minutes or more. Instead, all passengers will be offered an “all-in-one” snack bag consisting of a wrapped sanitizer wipe, a bottle of water, a wafer cookie and a package of pretzels. Dr. Polsky believes in-flight food and beverage services should be curtailed or eliminated altogether. “Just think of everyone needing to take off their masks during food and beverage service. It's like a flying restaurant,” he says.  

Any other precautions worth taking?

Before you fly, Dr. Bailey recommends finding out how prevalent COVID-19 is in the area you are traveling to. He also suggests keeping in mind the vulnerability to the coronavirus of those whom you are traveling to see, and also look into whether you’ll be subject to any local restrictions upon your arrival or upon your return. Many states, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont, require all out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days. The penalty for a violation can be high; breaking quarantine in Hawaii incurs a $5,000 fine. If you have to shelter in place or self-quarantine for a period of time, how would that impact your plans? 

Also, remember that some people are at a higher risk of the coronavirus than others, such as the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, and those who are should not fly unless it's an emergency. “These people should delay travel if at all possible,” says Dr. Bailey. “Certainly those with a current illness should not attempt to board an airplane—which they would hopefully be prevented from doing anyway.” 

It’s entirely up to you whether you fly or not, but if you do decide to get on that plane, make sure you know the potential dangers and take all necessary precautions to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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