What to Know About Air Travel During the Coronavirus Pandemic
If you do decide to book a flight, there are some dos and dont's to keep in mind so your travels are as safe as possible.
As states re-open, and the travel world inches back to life, airports that sat desolate due to the coronavirus pandemic will once again face large crowds and with it, a higher risk of spreading infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that airport travel generates many instances of unavoidable contact like standing in security lines and close seating on planes, but if a road trip is not an option for you, and you are faced with braving an airport, you should at least be prepared.
Although airports and airlines across the country have implemented regulations to limit the spread of coronavirus, there can be inconsistencies in both policy and enforcement. Food vendor availability, sanitation efforts, and security line protocols all vary airport to airport, but there are steps you can take as an individual to control the safety of your travel experience on upcoming trips. Ahead, what to expect at airports and on flights and how to navigate this new kind of air travel safely, according to experts.
Before You Go
Spontaneous air travel is so 2019, and with a new decade (and a global health crisis) comes new responsibilities. So…
Do your research. ICYMI, things these days (think: everything from coronavirus symptoms to protocols) can change in a blink, and travel restrictions are no exception. This is exactly why the CDC recommends continuously checking in with the state or local health departments (listed on the CDC website) of where you are, where you may stop en route, and where you're going.
If you think back a few short (very long-feeling) months to the beginning of the pandemic, you'll likely remember that anyone traveling from New York had to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Florida. Well, the tides have turned and, as of June 25, anyone traveling from the Sunshine State—or any state that has "significant community spread," according to the New York Department of Health—has to abide by the two-week self-isolation period. The goal? To contain the spread of new COVID-19 cases.
What about traveling outside of the country? In March, the U.S. Department of State enacted a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory, instructing "U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19." Despite still being in effect today, there are several countries that are allowing American travelers. Unfortunately, with the skyrocketing number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States (more than 4 million, at the time of publication), other countries are not so keen on having Americans abroad. Case in point? The European Union, which recently enacted a travel ban against American travelers.
If you're desperate for an international getaway, you can stay up to date on any restriction changes by checking the websites of U.S. embassies or consulates. The CDC also has a handy little interactive map that shows geographic risk assessment for COVID-19 transmission. But your best bet? Keep building that bucket list and save any puddle-jumping for down the road—after all, you can still get some of the mental health benefits of travel without leaving your house.
Consider testing. "Testing is complicated," says Kelly Cawcutt, M.D., an assistant professor in infectious diseases and critical care medicine, and associate director of infection control & hospital epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). "If you have any symptoms, you should absolutely get tested and frankly, I recommend not traveling." (See also: What Does a Positive Coronavirus Antibody Test Result Really Mean?)
And that holds true if you think you've been exposed to COVID-19 in the last 14 days. If that's the case, you should stay in isolation for at least two weeks to "minimize the risk of asymptomatic shedding [spreading] to others or becoming ill while away, as you may not be able to get back home," explains Dr. Cawcutt. (Remember: travel restrictions can change fast.)
Okay, but what if you want to travel and are not sure if you have the virus (read: asymptomatic)? "Testing for infection in those who are asymptomatic has several downsides, with the primary being a false sense of security," she adds. "For instance, if you are tested today and have a negative test, but fly out tomorrow, there is no guarantee that your test could not turn positive tomorrow." That's because the virus may have been present in your body but not yet detectable at the time of the test. If you must travel and are confident you have not been exposed to the virus within the past 14 days, then Dr. Cawcutt says to just follow the masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene recommendations closely.
Be mindful of airplane seating. Depending on the airline, your seat options will differ. For example, some carriers have continued to fill the plane to capacity like pre-pandemic days, while others, such as Delta and Southwest, have been blocking out their middle seats to promote social distancing. And, as you probably guessed it, "the fewer people who are in your six-foot range, the better," says Amesh Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (Related: Dividers In This New Plane Seat Design Ensure Both Privacy and Social Distance)
With regards to sitting toward the front or back of the plane, neither option is necessarily safer, according to Dr. Adalja. "There's no real evidence of transmission of the virus through air vents, so if a person is going to get infected it will be from the person next to or in close proximity to you."
Point being: Where you sit on a plane isn't as important as who you end up sitting next to or near. While not knowing your fellow passengers (and who've they've been in contact with, etc.) can be a little, err, unsettling, unless someone with COVID-19 is within six feet of you, odds of catching the virus are low, he says. That is, of course, as long as you're also being diligent about other preventative measures (wearing a face mask, not touching your face, washing hands correctly) and the cabin's ventilation system is working (more on that below).
In the Airport
Keep your hands clean, your distance deliberate, and your mask on. "Remember that there's going to be a risk in any activity in the absence of a vaccine, so try to social distance, wash your hands, and avoid touching your face," says Dr. Adalja. "And remember, airports have made changes in how they operate to make it easier for people."
For example, you are allowed to (and should) wear your facial covering during the entire security process, from standing 6-feet apart in line to moving through the scanners, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Instead of placing personal items such as your belt, shoes, and cellphone in a bin, they ask that you put those items in your carry-on bag which avoids the need for security bins, as the bag will still be scanned. They note that travelers may be asked to remove or repack items such as laptops, liquids, etc. after the security checkpoint should the need arise (think: more distance between people, less contact). And the only time you'll be asked to lower your mask is when you hand your ID or passport to the TSA agent so they can verify your identity.
Using antibacterial wipes, washing your hands, and using hand-sanitizer frequently are all solid defenses against germ-spread—and, in some instances, are all better than wearing gloves, according to the CDC. Unless you are constantly changing them out, you're just as much transferring germs from frequently touched surfaces to anything else you touch like your bags, your clothes, and your face. Therefore, the CDC recommends sanitizer and good ole handwashing over gloves. (Also a good option? Using a keychain touch tool.)
The same protection and sanitizing rules apply when it comes to frequently-used spaces such as bathrooms. Dr. Cawcutt recommends using less-visited restrooms, such as those "prior to security, near baggage claim," or "walking to one where there is not an imminent flight, as there may be fewer people in those areas."
Pack healthy snacks. While some food options are beginning to open in airports across the country, many restaurants and shops are still closed and many airlines have limited their in-flight services (i.e. snacks, drinks) on most domestic flights, as recommended by the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. So, you may want to bring some easy travel snacks and an empty bottle to fill up at a fountain after clearing security. (FWIW, BYO-snacks will also help maintain social distance and minimize contact with people and surfaces.)
There's no perfect airport space for safe eating, but "if you need to grab a meal at the airport, find a place you can sit and eat that is more than six feet from other patrons," says Dr. Cawcutt. "Picking up grab-and-go food is ideal for this, but if within a restaurant, look for staff who are wearing masks, and distanced seating to protect yourself and others." If you're wearing a face-covering when meal-time approaches, it's okay to "take off your covering to eat or drink, as long as you put it back on when finished, whether in the terminal or on the plane," says Dr. Adalja. Regardless of where you eat, you might consider wiping down your seat, table, or surrounding area with an antibacterial wipe and keeping your distance from others as best as possible.
On the Plane
Airlines aren't messing around when it comes to keeping their cabins safe and clean—and TG for that. In fact, many have implemented enhanced sanitation and social distancing efforts. Once on the plane, your seat area should be sufficiently clean as carriers have implemented protocols such as "fogging", which involves spraying down the entire cabin with an EPA-registered disinfectant before every flight, according to Delta, who has also discontinued their blanket and pillow service on short flights.
Be patient when boarding. But before you can even climb aboard, you need to make it through the mayhem that is boarding an airplane. As the boarding process unfolds, travelers can continue to spread out in the terminal. But filing into a narrow metal container of-sorts doesn't really allow for optimal social distancing practices. That said airlines, like so many things in this mid-pandemic world, are adapting: some, such as Southwest, are boarding in smaller groups of, i.e., 10, while others, such as JetBlue, are now boarding passengers back-to-front. Whatever the case might be, keep your distance as best as possible and be sure to wear a mask or face covering (To repeat: Wear a mask—copper, cloth, or something in between—please!).
"There are very few legitimate exemptions for wearing face masks, and the broader term is face-covering," says Dr. Adalja. "If you can't wear a mask, you can wear a face shield because it doesn't obstruct your breathing, and there's evidence that it covers more surface area, so you may see a trend toward that in the future."
"If you are concerned about wearing a cloth mask for the duration of the flight, consider purchasing the disposable masks to use and discard while traveling," adds Dr. Cawcutt. "They can be more comfortable for many people to wear continuously." (See also: This Tie-Dye Neck Gaiter Is a Comfortable, Fashionable Face Mask Option)
Trust the air vent system. "Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes," according to the CDC. Yup, you read that right. Despite seemingly popular opinion, the cabin's air ventilation system is pretty damn good—and that's due largely in part to the plane's high-quality HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, which can remove up to 99.9 percent of germs. What's more, the volume of cabin air is refreshed every few minutes—more specifically, two to three minutes in both Boeing- and Airbus-manufactured aircrafts.
Albeit frustrating and alarming, this pandemic is far from over, and until there are widespread solutions such as a vaccine, individual responsibility is the best remedy at your disposal. "I would continue to use caution as the majority of our country is still battling to control the spread of COVID-19," says Dr. Cawcutt. "With all the states seeing high numbers of cases right now, I would avoid airplane travel if at all possible to minimize risk until we see substantial improvements in persistently decreasing cases in the US." As for those who must travel? Just be smart—keep your distance, your mask on, and your hands washed.