Air travel in the time of COVID

How — and whether — you can fly safely

Airline flights have decreased by 90% since March—this has almost certainly decreased disease spread since traveling by plane is probably the simplest way for the virus to get around the globe. But as states and countries start to open back up, people have begun to once again consider traveling and must now weigh the risks and benefits of flying. How safe is it, really, to get on an airplane during the pandemic?

The answer to this question comes down to combining a few facts.

  1. Airplanes themselves are very clean and don’t increase risk of infection, but being near people can.

  2. Airlines and passengers should and are taking protective safety measures, but they are not enough to ensure 100% safety. 

  3. Flying right now can be extremely stressful.

Let’s unpack these facts (summarized in the infographic and explained in greater detail below it):

First, airplane safety. One common misconception is that airplanes themselves are a high-risk environment for infection. In fact, the opposite is true: according to the CDC, risk of getting COVID-19 on an airplane is low. This is because airplanes are quite good at controlling airborne bacteria and viruses. They have ventilation systems that cycle air 10 to 12 times per hour and use HEPA air filters, both measures that are recommended by the CDC for recirculating air in isolation rooms with COVID-19 patients. Additionally, many airlines disinfect the airplane interiors between flights with methods such as electrostatic spraying

Together, this means that in the current setup there is a limit to how far the virus can spread within the plane. If someone has COVID-19 in the back of the plane and you are seated in the front, it is very unlikely the virus will spread to you through the air filtration.

So this is all good news. However: if you are seated next to someone who has COVID-19, or even one or two rows away, a cough can easily travel that distance. And the rest of the travel experience involves a lot of close interaction with others. Riding in cabs and Ubers. Standing in line. Waiting for TSA. Talking to the gate agent. Buying food. All of these interactions are possible sources of infection. The problem isn’t the airplane—it’s the people. 

Some of these risks can be mitigated. TSA lines will surely involve physical distancing.  To encourage this behavior, airlines and airports have adopted many measures such as plexiglass at desks, touchless passports, and lines to mark six feet on the floor. 

Most airlines have already taken measures or have a plan in place to help passengers practice physical distancing, even on airplanes. United says it’s preventing middle seats from being purchased (but might still assign them on fuller flights). Delta is capping seating at 60 percent, Southwest says they will leave a third of seats empty, and American Airlines has vowed to block all middle seats. Most airlines require passengers to wear masks and provide them if needed, but enforcement might not be very strict. Other measures include handing out sanitizing wipes, boarding fewer passengers at a time, and serving only packaged food.

However: when it comes down to it, these measures will not ensure everyone is 6 feet away from everyone else all the time. Basically, the answer to whether it’s possible to safely observe physical distancing while flying is probably not, or at least not for the entire duration of your travel. 

Flying safely during the pandemic is, therefore, going to require other types of changes. In the short run, if you have to fly, you’ll want to wear a mask, bring hand sanitizer, and wash your hands often. In the longer run, airlines and airports are looking at new methods (i.e. plexiglass seat dividers, turning around middle seats, touchless bathrooms, and even “plastic capsules” around each seat.)  

Regardless, flying is likely to remain a somewhat risky activity in terms of disease spread, but it is worth noting that this is always true (pandemic or not), and many people choose to fly anyway. As with all other choices, taking into account your risk category is likely to be important. A younger person may find these risks more acceptable than an older person given the likely disease course.

A final consideration is that flying during this pandemic can be extremely stressful. One passenger describes an unpleasant flight experience amid paranoid travelers, angry seatmates, and daunting public service announcements. Screening and checking passengers before takeoff and upon arrival is likely to take more time than usual even if the lines are shorter. In other words, if you do fly, be prepared. 

This issue was adapted from a post on the site available here. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and concerns — you can get a hold of us via email, TwitterInstagram, and the site itself.