Is flying safe right now? Experts break down the risks associated with boarding a flight during COVID-19.
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- While some Americans aren't yet considering air
travelin the face of the novel coronavirus, others are eager to resume flying.
- Before booking that cheap ticket, it's important to be aware of the risks of flying during COVID-19, in both airplanes and airport environments.
- We talked to doctors, a medical advisor for an aviation trade association, a pilot, and industry experts for their answers to the question: is it safe to fly right now?
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the US, and a lengthy list of international destinations have banned American travelers from entering, air travel continues to be one of the hardest-hit industries.
But as states continue to reopen — and restlessness spikes — many are eyeing a return to travel as soon as possible.
For many, that means starting small by considering safe vacation alternatives during COVID, such as renting a car, taking regional road trips, and booking private Airbnbs (largely considered safe by experts), or hotels with stringent new cleaning policies.
That's because air travel seems like a relatively riskier proposition given the likelihood of encountering many people, of unknown backgrounds, for a prolonged period, and in a captive environment.
But just how safe or risky is air travel during the pandemic? Is it safe to fly right right now during COVID?
To help break down the answers, we reached out to an array of experts, including an infectious disease doctor, an ER doctor, a pilot, a medical advisor for an aviation trade association, and uber-frequent-flyer founders of popular flight deal platforms.
Here's what they say about the risks of flying during COVID-19 and encountering airplanes and airports, the precautions you should take to mitigate risk if you decide to fly, and whether or not they consider it safe to fly at all in this stage of the pandemic.
What are the risks of flying during COVID-19?
Remember that most air travel — with the exception of private flights, or public charters like JSX that fly through private terminals — requires not just the airplane flight itself, but also the full airport experience. As we all know, that means lots of lines and crowds.
We also know that the virus is generally transmitted directly between people. Therefore, people-to-people interactions pose the greatest risk among the factors present in airports.
"Airports have constant traffic going through them with travelers coming to and from various locations around the globe," says Dr. Neil Brown, an emergency medicine physician and K Health's chief diagnosis officer. "We cannot be sure everyone is using the same precautions as we are, nor if they have been advised to."
But you might be able to reasonably manage your risk of exposure to people in an airport. Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, calculates, "I would think that you could control spacing and time that you might be exposed to individuals who might be infectious unbeknownst to you more easily as you're entering the airport and during the boarding process, than when you're on the flight."
Airports are trying various tactics to minimize contact between people and promote social distancing. For instance, Seattle-Tacoma International has removed many of the seats at its gates. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, passengers can use facial recognition technology to bypass various points of human contact prior to boarding.
Additionally, airplanes themselves are known to filter air quickly and effectively, which helps. And airplane travel has some other built-in safety features well suited to the age of coronavirus, explains Dr. David Powell, a medical advisor for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group that represents most of the world's major passenger airlines and cargo carriers.
"Customers sit facing forward and not toward each other, seat backs provide a barrier, and the limited movement of passengers once seated adds to the onboard protection," he says. "Moreover, airflow is less conducive to droplet spread than other indoor environments: flow rates are high, directed in a controlled manner (from ceiling to floor), to limit mixing, and the use of High Efficiency Particulate Air filters ensures that the air supply is pure."
Pilot and aviation author Brett Manders explains that these filters are able to capture 99.9 percent of virus particles. "The other thing to note is aircraft air is replaced at a rapid rate," he says. "If you filled the aircraft with green smoke for demonstration purposes, it would be all 100-percent clear within two minutes."
But while these features may help reduce risk, they do not change the fact that commercial airplane travel means flying in a confined space with other people, and for more than a fleeting period of time.
Manders notes that while planes' airflow and filtration systems are effective, they can't do everything to prevent spread between passengers, even those who may be asymptomatic. "COVID-19 transmits by droplets in the air and whilst the systems refresh cabin air at a rate of about 90 seconds, it isn't a linear flow from ceiling to floor," he says. "Unfortunately, air will mix and tumble and it only takes a droplet in the air from a passenger's cough, speech, or sneeze to your personal space."
Indeed, Dr. Russo underscores that airplanes' airflow systems may be good — but they're not magical. "The air handling in a plane is pretty good, but it's still a closed space. And depending on how long your flight is, you're going to be in proximity of a fixed number of people for a prolonged period," he says. "Once you're on the flight, you've been dealt a hand. Hopefully, everyone around you isn't infected, but you just don't know for sure. A longer flight is going to be a greater risk even though the air is handled pretty well because it's a close space, exposed to other individuals, and the time of exposure is longer."
Russo puts the risk of infection coming mainly from other passengers next to you or within a couple of rows. It's "a lot less likely [from passengers] 10 or 15 rows back."
He is a big proponent of masks overall, citing them as an effective precaution against transmission. If you have to fly, "This would be a time to use your best masks. If you have an N95 mask, that's ideal," he says.
No matter the mask you own, air travel is the time to use your best-protecting face cover that is fitted correctly, and not removed for the duration.
What precautions should I take if I fly?
As it is known that the virus spreads primarily through direct person-to-person contact, inanimate objects are much less of a concern, according to CDC guidance.
"It's really proximity to people," Dr. Russo notes. "But bring your own wipes if you want to be sure, and wipe down your tray tables, all your audio, TV remote knobs, and all that sort of stuff."
Dr. Brown also suggests sanitizing the seat, armrests, headrests, and sidewalls if you have a window seat. "If you are flying or planning to, I highly recommend everyone to take certain precautions to lower your risk of being exposed to the coronavirus such as making sure you are up to date with your routine vaccinations, wash your hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, steer clear from people who are visibly sick, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth," he says.
Dr. Brown considers it "generally safe" to use the airplane's lavatory as long as you socially distance as much as possible from other passengers if waiting in line. "I would advise travelers to avoid directly touching the door, bathroom faucet, the slider to lock the lavatory, and the handle to flush the toilet."
Also, consider that eating and drinking on planes may be another possible transmission trigger. "A number of airlines have actually suspended in-flight service because of concerns about transmission through handling trays and individual items," Manders notes. "Airlines would hate to be listed as a source for an outbreak so they will do everything in their power to prevent this by taking proactive measures."
What are airlines doing to mitigate the risks of flying during COVID-19?
Airlines have announced a patchwork of new policies designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission and reassure would-be travelers.
Dr. Powell notes that changes within airports include the wearing of masks by airport staff and face coverings by passengers, provision of hand sanitizer dispensers, frequent and thorough disinfection of premises, and physical distancing measures where practicable.
Some airports, including London Heathrow and Puerto Rico's San Juan airport, are also conducting passenger temperature checks using thermal cameras. Of course, much has been made of the coronavirus' ability to transmit through asymptomatic passengers, who would not be detected in such a screening.
On the planes themselves, airline policies vary widely. Delta is among those announcing it would cap seating capacity to guarantee distancing. Frontier faced swift backlash after announcing it planned to charge passengers for the guarantee of a socially distanced seat; it later pulled the plug on the idea.
Additionally, Dr. Powell notes, "We are seeing measures being introduced such as wearing of face masks and coverings by passengers and crew, simplified catering that reduces interactions between passenger and crew, reduced mobility on board, more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning, and new boarding procedures to eliminate crowding on the air bridge and in the cabin."
But because each airline has a different approach.
"There's been a bit of confusion," says Scott's Cheap Flights founder and flight expert Scott Keyes. "Some airlines are blocking middle seats, some are limiting the number of passengers on board, some are warning passengers ahead of time if it'll be a full flight, and some are doing none of that. It's difficult to keep straight which airline is taking which step, if any. Generally speaking, airlines are adhering to their stated policies, but those policies vary widely."
And not everyone is as convinced the airlines are faithfully doing what they promise. Alex Miller, the founder and CEO of UpgradedPoints.com, says they can only "sort of" be trusted. "Many airlines promised blocked seats, but later revealed that if flight loads dictated, they would release these seats for passengers. So, blocked seats really weren't blocked after all. This said, most airlines are implementing rigid cleaning procedures and most airlines are abiding by these new, strict standards."
Our own reporter found that United was choosing not to block middle seats any longer and instead was offering free flight changes for passengers on crowded flights. Similarly, American also recently stopped blocking middle seats.
And, airlines that do block middle seats now may not continue doing it for long. "Once travel starts picking back up, I am highly confident that will be one of the first new policies that the airlines reverse because it'll be too expensive for them to keep it," Keyes says.
For his part, Dr. Russo is not convinced that seat-blocking policies are necessarily adequate to fully mitigate risk in all situations. After all, he notes, a window seat is hardly six feet from the seat on the aisle even if the middle seat is vacant, and six feet is merely the minimum-recommended social distancing measure to prevent spread.
So, is flying safe right now?
The IATA's Powell reports encouraging data about the risk of virus transmission on flights. "The risk of transmission of COVID-19 from passenger-to-passenger onboard an aircraft appears already to be very low, based on our communications with a large number of major airlines during January through March 2020, and a more detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers [during the same period] who were confirmed for COVID-19 after air travel." He attributes this to the seating configuration, airflow and filtration systems, and those other traits unique to flying.
But according to medical experts unaffiliated with aviation, there is an inherent risk in flying right now. "Safe is a relative term," Dr. Russo says. "Particularly for longer flights, even with good mask usage, you're getting into the more moderate risk zone as opposed to low risk" environments you might find with grocery store outings or jaunts to a local beach with social distancing.
"On a plane, all bets are off as far as likelihood of who could be infected," he notes. "It could be different people from different parts of the world, and different prevalence of disease. So even if you're flying out of an area where everything looks good, you just don't quite know who's on that plane, where they've been, and what their state is. The mask affords a certain degree of protection, but there's no question there's going to be some risk with this situation, particularly the longer the flight is and the more crowded it is."
Dr. Brown puts it simply: "It is best to avoid any unnecessary travel at the moment until the CDC has stated otherwise."
Whether or not to fly remains an individual choice, best undertaken after serious considerations of the risk-versus-reward ratio until there is a vaccine. For his part, Dr. Russo says he would fly for a significant family event he deemed worthy of exposure to some amount of risk.
Keyes agrees. "I wouldn't fly for vacation today," he says. "But I think it's safe enough that if I had an important trip like visiting a sick family member, I'd feel confident getting on board."
A sample of airlines' current COVID-19 policies
- Air Canada: Issuing contact-free infrared temperature screenings. Passengers with elevated temperatures will be denied boarding.
- Air France: Mandatory masks for passengers and crew. The spacing of passengers when available.
- American Airlines: American is no longer blocking seats. Mandatory masks, and reduced food and beverage service is continuing. If a flight is booking up, American will notify passengers and offer the option to change flights free of charge.
- Delta: Mandatory face masks, reduced food and beverage offerings, new boarding by row procedure. Blocking middle seats and select aisle/window seats in all cabins, and reducing the total number of passengers per flight to between 50 percent and 60 percent of capacity depending on aircraft type.
- Emirates: Mandatory masks, food offerings reimagined in bento-box style to reduce contact during service, pre-allocated vacant seats for social distancing.
- Frontier: First US airline to announce screening all passengers with temperature checks and denying boarding if found to be elevated. Mandatory masks, plexiglass partitions are being installed at ticket counters, all passengers checking in must accept a health acknowledgment.
- JetBlue: First airline to make masks mandatory for passengers and crew. JetBlue is also blocking middle seats on its Airbus A320 aircraft and certain aisle seats on its Embraer E190 aircraft through September 8.
- Southwest: Mandatory masks for the crew, and airline-provided masks for passengers without them, limited food and beverage service. They will limit the number of seats sold on its aircraft to ensure that middle seats can be left open until September 30.
- United: United will no longer block middle seats, but will allow passengers with full flights to make a change free of charge. Masks are mandatory. Service is suspended on short flights, but on flights longer then 2 hours and 20 minutes, United will distribute amenity bags with a sanitizing wipe, water bottle, and snacks.
For more reporting on whether it's safe to travel right now, click a link below to jump directly to related coverage.
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David Slotnick contributed reporting to this article.
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