For over a year, the coronavirus pandemic has made traveling a no-go for the majority of people. The threat of contracting or spreading the virus has kept many of us close to home, observing social distancing measures, and for good reason.
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Indeed, the number of airplane passengers dropped throughout the pandemic, but many are taking to the skies again. On April 1, 2021, for example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported screening more than 1.5 million travelers. That's far fewer than the 2.4 million flyers on the same day in 2019 — but much higher than the 124,000 who flew in 2020.
As states and countries increasingly loosen travel restrictions, and more and more people get vaccinated, plenty of people are curious about when it will be safe to travel again.
The short answer is that it's still safest to stay home for now. From security lines and airport terminals to the plane itself, air travel requires spending time in close quarters with others and thus increases your chances of encountering the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But, as of April 2, 2021, the CDC also recognizes that travel for fully vaccinated people is "low risk." As a reminder, you're considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the last recommended dose of your vaccine — either the second of two Pfizer or Moderna shots, or the one-and-done Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
If you're going to fly, there are measures you can take to help protect yourself (and others), vaccinated or not. Here, experts offer eight safety tips for reducing your risk of contracting or transmitting germs during air travel.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Research the Airline
Before booking a flight, do your homework to learn about what airlines are doing to protect passengers and employees.
Many airlines have dedicated COVID-19 sections on their websites where they break down the strategies they're implementing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus during flights.
For starters, look for information about seat blocking and capacity limits that reinforce social distancing guidelines. Some airlines are intentionally blocking travelers from booking certain aisle or middle seats to keep passengers farther away from each other. Others have returned to operating at full capacity. Many will allow you to change your ticket at no cost if you'd rather take a less crowded flight, but some are starting to charge change fees again.
Check out revised boarding procedures, too. Since boarding often involves large groups of people, "getting on and off the plane is a big risk, and every airline must do its best to have a solution to that," says David Freedman, MD, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"Many airlines are already employing boarding procedures such as back-to-front boarding to maintain physical distancing and eliminate crowding on the loading bridge and in the cabin," Perry Flint, a representative for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Dr. Freedman also recommends choosing an air carrier that enforces strict carry-on limitations to avoid crowding during boarding. Limiting luggage will encourage people to stay seated — the fewer carry-on bags you have, the less time you'll be standing in the aisle (and interacting with others) to open overhead bins.
In addition, learn about the ways the airline is adjusting its onboard food service. "Airlines that provide full meal service present a higher risk" for transmitting the coronavirus, Dr. Freedman says.
The IATA supports simplified food and beverage service to reduce interactions between passenger and crew and limit the potential transmission of COVID-19, Flint says.
For a safer food service, "in-flight meals could involve a bagged food placed on seats prior to boarding with a sealable bio-safety bag for final disposal," says Dr. Freedman, adding that "individual drink cups should not be refilled by crew."
2. Reduce Interactions at the Airport
When it comes to contracting (and spreading) the coronavirus, airports pose as much of a risk as the airplanes themselves, Dr. Freedman says. Think about all the people you encounter during check-in and security alone.
Though you can't avoid these person-to-person contacts altogether, there are a few simple things you can do to limit them before you arrive at the airport.
The IATA encourages passengers to print out boarding passes at home or use mobile boarding passes, to take advantage of self-bag tag and drop-off where available, and to use airport self-service kiosks, Flint says.
That said, also consider that self check-in screens are among the germiest spots in an airport. A 2018 study conducted by InsuranceQuotes.com investigated colony-forming units (CFU) — or the amount of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch — on surfaces in airports and found that the average self check-in screen contains upwards of 253,857 CFU (for reference, that's more than your toilet).
What's more, the novel coronavirus itself has been shown to linger on some surfaces for several days, per the CDC. Fortunately, "some airlines and airports are introducing 'touchless' kiosks to further reduce the risk," Flint says.
Still, the best way to stay safe at the airport is to wash your hands with soap and water (sudsing for at least 20 seconds) or use an ethanol-based hand sanitizer as soon as you finish at the self-service kiosk.
3. Limit the Lavatory
Once onboard the plane, try to keep your bathroom trips to a minimum.
"Bathrooms are a problem," Dr. Freedman says. When you consider the number of people that frequent the restroom, you can see why. From the toilet handle to the faucet to the doorknob, countless hands soil the surfaces in bathrooms.
Since COVID-19 can live on these surfaces for hours to days, your best bet is to avoid touching them.
Some airlines are attempting to address these safety issues by employing an onboard cleaner who regularly disinfects the lavatories during large, long-haul flights, says Dr. Freedman, who also recommends that air carriers designate a dedicated lavatory for the crew as they are the ones most likely to be infected due to lots of public contact.
Airplane restrooms are also troublesome, in part because the area near the lavatory tends to become crowded or blocked by passengers waiting to use the facilities. You don't want to be standing in line where you'll be in close contact with other flyers who may be infected.
That's why many airlines are trying to reduce mobility onboard by limiting lines at the lavatories, Flint says.
When you do use the lavatory, make sure to wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds afterward and then dry them completely with a paper towel. Use the paper towel to open the door as you leave, to avoid touching the handle directly.
4. Keep Your Air On
You've probably heard that a draft can make you sick, but using your personal air vent on a plane may have advantages for warding off the germs that cause COVID-19.
"The IFH recommends that flyers keep the personal ventilation system going above their seats when traveling on an aircraft," says Elizabeth Scott, PhD, associate dean and professor of biology at Simmons University and an expert in home and community hygiene. "This helps to ensure that any viruses circulating around you are directed away from you down to the floor of the cabin."
Remember, the novel coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected individual coughs, sneezes or talks, per the CDC.
In fact, when you speak, these tiny droplets can hang in the air for no less than eight minutes, according to a May 2020 study in PNAS.
So, when you use your air vent, you can potentially create an airflow that may help prevent airborne pathogenic particles from reaching you.
However, this strategy should never substitute for tried-and-true techniques like social distancing and wearing a mask.
Though it may prove particularly difficult aboard a confined space like a sealed aircraft, you should still attempt to stay away from other people as much as you can, Dr. Freedman says.
Remember, to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC always recommends keeping at least six feet of distance. But, in reality, how can you practice social distancing on a plane when passengers are packed in seats like sardines?
You can start by booking an off-peak flight and choosing a carrier that guarantees not all seats will be filled, according to Dr. Freedman.
Keep in mind, though, that when it comes to seating, it's practically impossible to predict who will be situated next to you. "Middle seat occupancy, seat spacing, barriers between seats or distancing between passengers are at airline's discretion," Dr. Freedman says.
If you're lucky enough to afford it, opt for a sky suite with a door. But, for most of us who don't have that luxury, it's not all bad news.
The risk of viral transmission from passenger to passenger onboard an aircraft appears to be low, Flint says.
This may be in part because customers sit facing forward and not toward each other, seat backs provide a natural barrier between flyers and there's limited movement of passengers once seated, he explains.
"Moreover, air flow is less conducive to droplet spread than other indoor environments since airflow rates are high, directed in a controlled manner (from ceiling to floor) to limit mixing, and hospital-grade HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters help keep the air supply pure," Flint says.
That's why the IATA does not support the mandate of physical distancing measures that would require middle seats to be empty. "Even if implemented, keeping the middle seat open will provide less than the recommended separation for social distancing," Flint points out.
It's true — the average seat width is approximately 20 inches, which is way less than the CDC's six-foot safety marker.
Still, if someone at your side is coughing, sneezing or simply not wearing a mask, you should make every effort to relocate to another seat while boarding or even during the flight if feasible, Dr. Freedman says.
Barring that, sticking to your seat is the safest strategy. The less you move around, the fewer contact points you'll have with others who could be carrying the coronavirus. And if you are an unknown COVID-19 carrier, this will keep you from unintentionally spreading the infection to others.
6. Wear a Mask
Face coverings are mandatory on flights currently — and with good reason.
"Masks are mainly source control," Dr. Freedman adds. In other words, each person wears a mask to protect others, especially since an individual can be infectious even without exhibiting symptoms.
Case in point: An April 2020 Nature Medicine study approximated that 44 percent of coronavirus infections are spread via pre-symptomatic people, meaning those who have yet to show signs of the disease.
And, because on a plane your greatest risk of catching the novel coronavirus comes from the people sitting next to you, wearing a mask becomes a crucial strategy for containing the transmission of the potentially deadly disease.
Especially when you consider how far pathogens can travel when ejected through the act of sneezing or coughing.
When someone sick sneezes or coughs, their germs can spray up to six feet, per the CDC. In fact, an April 2014 study in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics found that smaller particles can travel even longer distances (as far as 2.5 meters).
That's why research preprinted in January 2021 on medRxiv suggests staggering meal times on longer flights. In other words, if your neighbor is eating, leave your mask on, and eat your meal after they've finished and put their mask back on. (Keep in mind that a preprinted study hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, so this hasn't been proven to reduce or prevent transmission.)
Not only does a face covering suppress the spread of contagious respiratory droplets (by you or others), wearing one also reminds you to keep your hands away from your nose and mouth, which are common routes of infection for the virus.
7. Sanitize Hands and Surfaces
If a COVID-19 carrier sneezes or coughs and those droplets find their way to a nearby surface that you touch, you may be at risk for catching the disease.
Remember, the microbial mist from your fellow flyer's cough or sneeze can spray six feet or farther, and the novel coronavirus can stick on surfaces for days (although COVID-19 is not primarily spread through those surfaces).
To stay safe, consider disinfecting everything in your area. "Travelers who carry sanitizing wipes can use these to wipe down the surfaces around them," says Flint, adding, "Some airlines are providing passengers with wipes."
More importantly, always keep your hands clean to prevent any pathogens from entering your eyes, nose or mouth. "Your hands touch everything and will eventually go to your mouth, no matter what," Dr. Freedman says.
Scott recommends using hand sanitizer rather than washing in the onboard bathroom to limit unnecessary contact with others.
"The TSA now allows one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags," Dr. Freedman adds.
That said, many airlines are doing their part to decrease the spread of the coronavirus by following the IATA's recommendations for more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning.
"While ethanol sprays remain the mainstay, some airlines are now using electrostatic misting with bleach derivatives," Dr. Freedman says.
Again, bear in mind that cleaning frequency is airline-specific — yet another reason to educate yourself about a carrier's safety practices before you book.
8. Assess Your Personal Risk
There's no way around it: Travel ups your odds of catching and spreading the coronavirus. That's why the CDC continues to urge people to skip it whenever possible, especially if it's not essential, even if you're vaccinated. In short, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.
But just how great your risk is depends on several factors, especially if you're unvaccinated. "If you are in a high-risk category by age and by health status, then it is really important to assess whether you should really put yourself" in this situation, Scott says.
Adults aged 65 and older, immunocompromised individuals and people with serious underlying medical conditions are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, per the CDC.
In addition to these personal variables, you should also consider the location of your airport, as well as layovers and transfers, and your final destination. "Stay out of airports in hot-spot cities," which may increase the danger of contracting the coronavirus, Dr. Freedman says.
Unfortunately, "in the absence of a universal approach to testing and case reporting, the underlying epidemiological situation in each country or subregion is difficult to verify at this point," he adds. In other words, assessing an area's COVID-19 prevalence — and, consequently, your related risk — may prove somewhat difficult without reliable, accessible, up-to-date data.
Likewise, without mandatory temperature checks or pre-flight health screenings, it's also hard to gauge the health status of your fellow flyers. "In the U.S., no major airlines have introduced airline-specific temperature check protocols," Dr. Freedman says.
Of course, you should never fly if you're feeling ill, but again, you might be carrying COVID-19 without showing any symptoms. This may be why some state and local governments require you to quarantine upon arrival at your destination and/or after traveling.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Transportation Security Administration: “TSA checkpoint travel numbers for 2020 and 2019.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Coronavirus in the United States—Considerations for Travelers.”
- Journal of Fluid Mechanics: “Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How Infections Spread.”
- Nature Medicine: “Temporal dynamics in viral shedding and transmissibility of COVID-19.”
- PNAS: “The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
- International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene: “Covid-19 Advice.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How COVID-19 Spreads.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Cleaning and Disinfection for Households.”
- InsuranceQuotes.com: “Germs at the Airport.”
- JetBlue: "Our Planes"
- American Airlines: "American Airlines Expands Its Clean Commitment by Adding Vanderbilt University Medical Center on New Travel Health Advisory Panel"
- medRXiv: "Inflight Transmission of COVID-19 Based on Aerosol Dispersion Data"