June 11, 2020

As states lift stay-at-home orders, reopen nonessential businesses, and relax social distancing measures, many Americans and employers are wondering whether it's safe to resume air travel, both for business and leisure. But although several major airlines have implemented new safety protocols and have said it's safe for the public to fly, some observers and travelers remain skeptical.

The germs on a plane—and how to avoid them

Airlines look to lower risk of coronavirus transmission

Airlines have implemented a number of new health-related safety requirements aimed at lowering the risk that staff and passengers could transmit the new coronavirus—but they vary from company to company and airport to airport. For example, the largest domestic airlines—including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines—have mandated that passengers and staff wear face masks or coverings, while some are requiring that passengers and staff undergo temperature checks. For instance, United's policy states employees at hub airports will be required to have their temperatures checked.

Some airlines also are implementing certain physical distancing requirements both while boarding and onboard a plane, and they've taken steps to reduce passenger capacity. Delta, for example, says it's implemented a rule through September "capping seating at 50% capacity in first class and 60% capacity in the main cabin and keeping middle seats blocked," while American Airlines says it's implemented a policy to "not assign 50% of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats."

In addition, airlines have implemented new cleaning procedures for airplanes and have begun using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which can remove nearly all microbes and viruses from the air in planes' cabins.

According to the New York Times, Scott Kirby, United's CEO, during a recent call with investors said, "You can't be six feet apart on an airplane, middle seat or not." He added, "What makes an airplane safe is HEPA air filters recirculating the air every two to three minutes, wearing a mask on board the airplane, cleaning the airplane."

Does that make airplanes safe?

Despite airlines' efforts, many say the actions taken may not be enough to ensure airplanes are safe when it comes to a passenger's risk of transmitting or contracting the new coronavirus.

For instance, the Times reports that, while temperature checks can help to identify individuals who are sick with Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, they won't identify people who are infected with and possibly transmitting the virus but who aren't exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19. And asymptomatic patients could be fairly common, with some estimates suggesting about 35% of people infected with the new coronavirus are asymptomatic, according to the Times. Further, the Times reports that "40% of transmission" of the new coronavirus "occurs before people feel sick" with symptoms of Covid-19.

Timothy O'Neil-Dunne, a principal of the investment firm 777 Partners and a frequent flier, said airlines have ignored the "critical question that has to be answered: How can I be assured only nonspreaders of Covid-19 will be allowed on the aircraft with me?"

"So much is uncertain right now," Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel analysis firm Atmosphere Research Group, said. He added, "This uncertainty, combined with unnecessary variation from airport to airport in health screening processes, ends up with confused consumers not being confident enough to take a trip." As a result, people "will travel only when it's necessary, rather than when they want to, whether it's for business or pleasure," he said.

How to stay healthy while flying

So if it is necessary for you to travel by plane soon, what can you do to stay healthy?

When traveling to the airport, you're less likely to exposed to the new coronavirus if you to have someone who has been self-isolating drop you off as opposed to using a car service, the Times reports.

Once you're at the airport, you should wear a face mask or covering and use wipes and hand sanitizer to clean your hands and surfaces that might be contaminated with the virus, according to the Times. In addition, airlines have recommended that travelers download apps that store your travel documents and allow you to show them to airport personnel in order to minimize how often you have to hand your documents to another person or use touch screens at airport kiosks. If you do have to hand your documents to someone, use hand sanitizer afterwards, the Times reports.

If you have food with you, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends you carry the food in a clear plastic bag that's separate from your carry-on luggage. TSA in a statement said, "Separating the food from the carry-on bag lessens the likelihood that a TSA officer will need to open the carry-on bag and remove the food items for a closer inspection"—which could increase the risk of items becoming contaminated with the new coronavirus.

And while you're on an airplane, you should keep your face mask or covering on at all times, unless you're eating or drinking, the Times reports. Further, if you're able to choose where to sit, pick a window seat if you don't think you'll need to get up during the flight. Sitting in a window seat will help you have the least amount of contact with others as possible, the Times reports (Levere, New York Times, 6/1; Rabouin, Axios, 5/20; Mzezewa, New York Times, 5/27).

Next: The germs on a plane—and how to avoid them

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