Case in point: On Monday, July 13, close to 700,000 people passed through a TSA checkpoint. That’s far from usual: On the same day in 2019, the checkpoint travel numbers totaled 2.6 million. But just a couple months ago, those figures had clocked in at around 177,000, which indicates that air travel is inching back up.
But… is it really safe to fly just yet? We asked three top experts to weigh in on whether people should be booking tickets — and what you should know if you do need to board a plane.
How risky is air travel right now?
It’s pretty risky. Exactly how dangerous it is seems to depends on several factors, including how well-spaced passengers are, your fellow fliers’ adherence to mask-wearing, and the length of your flight.
The experts Refinery29 spoke to all agreed that the main problem is that flying puts you in close contact with other people for a prolonged period of time, a major risk factor.
Still, when we asked her to compare the relative risk of flying to, say, riding on the subway, Jill Grimes, MD, a family physician based in Texas, said she’d rather take her chances underground. “Part of the issue is the length of flights — much longer than a 10-minute subway ride,” she said. Still, she conceded, on a plane, mask-wearing is enforced more strictly than on the subway. Plus, she added, “I definitely appreciate that airlines are doing what they can with physically spacing out passengers, requiring masks, offering sanitizing wipes, and minimizing interactions,” such as limiting food and beverage service.
Of course, many people have no choice but to take the subway and other forms of public transit to work every day, while it's likely that at least some flights people are taking right now are optional.
“The other problem with air travel is population churn; that is, people from high and low transmission settings are easily able to visit and mix in new locations,” added M. Kumi Smith, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “This is very much how COVID spread so quickly from a single Chinese city to the entire world.”
Should I be worried about “recycled air” on airplanes?
Probably not. “Some experts now believe that breathing shared air on a plane is not the biggest problem, since the air is filtered,” said Dr. Smith. Planes are able “to use HEPA filters on the circulating air,” confirmed Richard Arriviello, DO, the chief medical officer at InHouse Physicians. A final word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes."
What are the coronavirus hotspots on planes, then?
While what we know about coronavirus is changing by the day, as of now, it seems like you’re most likely to get coronavirus from respiratory droplets, passed on during close contact with other people. “We are still understanding the risks of aerosolized particles, but we do know the closer you are and the more unmasked time you spend talking with someone, the higher your risk,” said Dr. Grimes.
Dr. Smith agreed that it’s critical to be extra cautious in “all the many places to and from the plane where people tend to congregate, including check-in counters, security, food establishments, bathrooms.” Another big issue, she said, is “all of the shared surfaces that we constantly touch — tray tables, armrests, bathroom surfaces, overhead bin latches.”
What can I do to minimize my risk?
Only fly if it’s really necessary, for one. “I think flying is still best avoided if possible,” Dr. Smith said. If you have to get on a plane, wear a mask. Every expert Refinery29 spoke to emphasized this over and over. It’s proven to work, and to be most effective, we all have to do it.
Many airlines say that they're enforcing fairly strict mask-wearing policies, but they may allow people to remove their face coverings while eating. Dr. Grimes suggested eating before you get to the airport, and bringing “a few hard candies to suck on that you can easily slip into your mouth under your mask — with your freshly sanitized hands — to clear your ears or satisfy hunger.” Dr. Smith added that, “If you’re in a higher risk group, you could even consider wearing goggles and gloves.”
Other tips: “Choose a nonstop flight, to minimize time in the air and to reduce interactions with strangers,” Dr. Grimes suggested. If you can swing the seat selection fee, try to choose a spot in an empty or partially empty row. Bring sanitizing wipes to clean your area when you sit down. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently, and avoid touching your face.
What if someone on my plane later tests positive?
If you're aware that you flew with a sick passenger, you should self-quarantine for at least 14 days. You should get tested too, “Ideally around five to six days after your flight,” said Dr. Grimes.
It’s hard to say exactly how likely you are to contract COVID-19 if someone on your flight winds up being positive, Dr. Grimes said. “If someone on your plane is positive, your risk is dependent on your proximity to that person, and that person’s behavior. Was their mask off most of the flight because they were eating or drinking, for instance?”
The bottom line is that getting on a plane right now means taking on a degree of risk — and possibly endangering others too. It’s up to you to weigh the necessity of your flight against those risks.