Flying During COVID-19: What to Know Before You Board

COVID-19 has now spread to 167 countries.

By Caroline Gellman
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UPDATE: This article has been updated with new information on March 23, 2020, 8:15 a.m.

Air travel has made traveling much easier and more accessible, but as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, it’s also made public health and safety much more complicated. COVID-19 has spread to over 155 countries, largely due to international travel. There have been more than 349,000 confirmed cases and over 15,100 deaths worldwide. The novel coronavirus also has an increasing presence in the U.S. There are now more than 35, 224 cases with 471 deaths in all states across the U.S. Even with these staggering numbers, Americans are still flying during the COVID-19 scare. 

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With COVID-19 dominating news headlines as of late, it’s confusing to know just how concerned you should be. Is traveling totally off-limits? What are the most important precautions to take if you do fly? Here’s what you need to know.

How Do I Know If a Country Is Safe to Visit?

If you’re traveling abroad, you may want to consider changing your plans, depending on where you’re going. The CDC tracks outbreaks to provide guidance to Americans on where it’s safe to visit. Currently, the CDC has issued a level 2 alert for Japan, which means travelers who are high risk (ie, older adults and people with chronic conditions) should take special precautions.

In China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea, the CDC has issued a level 3 warning, which means everyone should avoid traveling there unless absolutely necessary.  If you’re heading elsewhere? Keep checking CDC warnings and the State Department website before planning your trip abroad or boarding a plane. If you wish to cancel your flight, check out which airlines are accepting full refunds for cancelations. 

Is It Safe for Me to Take a Flight In the U.S.?

A recent study from Environmental Health in London found that spending more time on the London underground and changing train lines more frequently was associated with the spread of influenza-like infections. The more people you come into contact with, the greater the risk.So unless cities shut down entirely, domestic air travel may not pose a higher risk than your morning metro commute or a meal at your favorite local restaurant. But what about flying?

As of right now, the CDC says that most Americans have a small risk of exposure to the virus in the U.S. Many companies are now encouraging their employees to work from home and to avoid travel altogether. If you live in a community where the virus is spreading, the risk of contracting the disease is elevated.

There are also new travel guidelines from the CDC pertaining to cruise ships and large social gatherings. The CDC recommends that everyone avoids cruise ship travel, and it also recommends that vulnerable individuals avoid crowded places and non-essential travel. But unless you're taking a plane or train somewhere where novel coronavirus infections are rampant, traveling may be no more likely to expose you than your daily activities. 

We’re likely to see more cases, especially as state and local governments ramp up testing efforts. And what we’ve learned so far is that the situation is rapidly evolving, seemingly minute to minute, and there’s a lot we still don’t know about how the virus spreads and who is at highest risk for fatal illness.

If you’re young and healthy, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get seriously sick if you contracted the virus. But the bigger issue is when you expose other people who may be more vulnerable, especially the elderly and people with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems.

What Precautions Should I Take If I Do Board a Plane? 

Your risk of getting sick on the plane is probably lower than you’d think. A common misperception is that the air inside a plane cabin is stale and recycled. But studies have shown that cabin air quality might even be better than the air we breathe in the office. Roughly 50% of the air in the cabin comes from outside to mix in with the other 50%, which is filtered, recirculated air. These High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters capture over 99.9% of airborne germs.

In 2018, research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) determined that droplet-mediated respiratory diseases (like COVID-19, the flu, or your average cold) are unlikely to be transmitted more than one row in front of or behind an infected passenger. It’s too early to tell whether COVID-19 behaves the same way as the flu on a plane, but large flu particles like the ones you’d cough or sneeze can’t travel very far and tend to settle to the ground close to their source. Smaller particles, which are released by breathing and talking, may stay in the air for longer. 

The PNAS research also suggests that the window seat may be a safer spot than the aisle. You’ll be surrounded by fewer people, and you won’t have to worry about the passengers sitting across the aisle from you as well.

When you travel, keep yourself safe by doing the same things you’d normally do to avoid getting the flu in the winter. Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol whenever you touch a surface. Make sure to do so especially before you eat anything or after you go to the bathroom, cough, sneeze, or blow your nose. Keep a travel-size container of hand sanitizer in your bag and get into the habit of using it after taking any public transportation—regardless of whether it’s a train, plane or automobile.

Related:

How to Care for Older Family Members Amidst the COVID-19 Scare

COVID-19 Quiz: What’s Your Risk Level?

Fistbump Vs. Handshake: How to Greet People Amidst COVID-19

Article written by Caroline Gellman