Air travel requires spending time in security lines and at airport terminals, taking sometimes full flights and coming into close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces.
As COVID-19 cases spike in some states, people wonder: Is it safe to fly?
Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cleveland Clinic who treats coronavirus patients, told USA TODAY that flying offers more potential for exposure to the coronavirus than other forms of travel because of the configuration of planes.
“Once you’re in the cabin, you don’t know who’s on the plane,” he said. “You’re in relative closer proximity to people you don’t know.” You may have to sit near others (closer than the 6-foot social distancing recommendation), sometimes for hours.
Still, he said, flying is safer than it was earlier in the pandemic because of the changes airlines have made.
“It is as safe as they can make it,” Khabbaza said.
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If you do fly, here are some ways to mitigate the risks:
Here’s how to properly disinfect your airplane seat
To avoid catching other people’s germs on your next flight, follow these steps to ensure you’ve properly disinfected your plane seat before take-off.
The Transportation Security Administration recommends travelers put personal items such as cellphones, keys, lip balm and tissues in their carry-on bags instead of in a bin to avoid cross-contamination.
The TSA implemented procedures to increase social distancing and reduce direct contact between travelers and agents, such as having passengers scan their own boarding passes.
Bring a face mask or face covering and wear it at the airport and on the plane. All major U.S. airlines require passengers to wear them. Some airlines, including United, American and Delta, said they will ban passengers who refuse to wear them.
“Customers who choose not to comply with this or any other safety requirement risk losing their future flight privileges with Delta,” CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo to employees last week. “So far, there have thankfully only been a handful of cases, but we have already banned some passengers from future travel on Delta for refusing to wear masks on board.”
Yes, you can take off a face covering when you eat or drink. But make sure to put it back on when you’re done. And don’t yank it off as soon as you’re off the plane.
Forget a mask? Many airlines and airports hand them out to travelers, and they are for sale at airport shops and in some places vending machines. Spirit Airlines will sell you a mask for $3, and the proceeds go to the Red Cross, but CEO Ted Christie said it hasn’t sold many because people bring their own.
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Bring your own hand sanitizer and use it regularly. The TSA relaxed its liquid rule for hand sanitizers and allows travelers to bring a hand sanitizer container as big as 12 ounces instead of the usual 3.4-ounce limit in their carry-on bag. Take antibacterial wipes, too, and wipe down your seat, tray table, armrest and other areas around you.
Travelers should consider how many surfaces could have the virus and make sure those are disinfected. If you have to use the bathroom on your flight, wipe down the door handle and other surfaces you may touch inside the lavatory.
Don’t want to touch that bag of snack mix or the airline’s drink cups or set foot in an airport store or restaurant (if you can find one open)? Bring your own food from home and an empty water bottle to fill once you clear security.
Another reason to pack food: Several airlines have reduced – or even eliminated – in-flight service to limit interactions between passengers and flight attendants.
Use your smartphone to check in to your flight on your airline’s mobile app in advance, and save your boarding pass straight to your phone. You can also check in via the airline’s website and print your boarding pass. Either way, you’ll be able to avoid waiting in line to use the check-in kiosks at the airport.
If you have bags to check, consider using the skycap outside to avoid lines (if they’re open at your airport), but don’t forget to tip a couple of dollars per bag.
To further decrease touch points as you check in and get through security for your flight, consider bringing a zip-lock bag to put your ID in until you have a chance to disinfect it after it’s been handled by airport or TSA personnel.
Paloma Beamer is an associate professor of environmental health science at the University of Arizona College of Public Health and president of the International Society of Exposure Science, a field that studies how to minimize exposure to health risks in the environment.
Beamer said taking shorter flights, rather than one long one, would limit the time in the vicinity of a possibly infected person in a nearby seat, especially as airlines’ commitments to blocking seats and limiting plane capacity expire. You’re less likely to need to use the bathroom on two shorter flights, which would reduce the amount of time spent in the aisle.
Sit by the window. Selecting the window seat reduces the number of people sitting around you, and you’re farther from people who may walk by in the aisle.
Most airborne viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how airplanes circulate and filter air.
Most planes have filters that remove 99.9% of particles from the air while bringing in outside air, Beamer said, noting the added turbulence from the filtered air will push the non-filtered air away.
So keep the air vents above your seat open to improve ventilation.
Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson, Curtis Tate, Chris Woodyard, Melissa Yeager, Julia Thompson, John Cox; illustrations by Veronica Bravo