Flying and COVID-19: How to Protect your health, minimize risks, and reduce your stress
Considerations for Safer Air Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Most everything in daily life has changed or been influenced as a result of the pandemic. Air travel is no exception and even comes with its own considerations. Although more flights are being added daily and passengers are once again returning to the air, you may be questioning exactly how to do this safely.
… customer demand for domestic flights appears to be on the mend, international flights are still lagging. – Passengers and Flight Schedule of American Airlines
Traveling in the time of COVID-19 is something entirely different than what we have experienced. As SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread both throughout the country and around the globe it is important that you plan ahead with your health as the priority. The big question remains: How can you mitigate risks as you travel by air?
Be informed • Be aware • Be diligent
- Visit the U.S. State Department website for any travel advisories prior to booking a flight. While international travel remains unlikely to pick up for awhile, if you are flying out of the country, be sure to check if your destination country has instituted a quarantine rule. Arriving in Britain, for instance, you can currently anticipate an enforced 14-day quarantine (www.bbc.com). Some countries may be flagged with advisories based on their COVID-19 status, while others may be considered risky for other reasons.
- Check the website for ground transportation options to determine their current infection control practices. If you need to take public transportation to and from the airport, preplan and prepay as much as possible to minimize contact and interaction time.
- Research your desired U.S. destination to determine if the COVID-19 infection rate is dropping and to learn what the status of business reopenings are in the area. While many cities and counties have gone to “green”, there are many that continue to have widespread closures which will limit your dining and entertainment options. The CDC offers information for travelers on a range of subjects such as where COVID-19 is spreading in the U.S. and abroad. For state information, go to https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/us/states-reopen-coronavirus-trnd/.
- Compare airlines and visit airport websites for information on the methods and regulations they have implemented to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. Within this information, there are a few key points to look for which can assist you in making an informed decision when choosing which airline to fly.
- What are their cleaning and disinfecting protocols?
- How are they boarding and seating to assist with social distancing?
- Are they limiting the number of passengers so the middle seats remain open?
- Are they offering meals, snacks or drinks? If so, what are their food safety practices?
- Do they require passengers to fill out a health questionnaire prior to boarding?
- Will they be checking passengers’ temperatures prior to boarding? Will you encounter temperature checkpoints in the airport as well?
Preventing exposure to infection requires some degree of awareness of our surroundings and the things we touch on a daily basis. In heavily trafficked areas such as airports and aircraft, it is vital to remain mindful of the surroundings you come in contact with as well. Recognize practices for personal safety you may already employ, and be aware of options and alternatives to improve upon the practices you have used in the past.
Check in ahead of time. Luckily most people are already in the habit of printing their boarding pass prior to arriving at the airport or simply using an electronic one. Utilize these methods of check-in instead of using public kiosks which can carry the germs of everyone who touches them, particularly if improperly cleaned, and can increase your chances of exposure.
- Watch for hand sanitizer stations. Keep an eye out for signage throughout the airport alerting passengers to new foot-traffic patterns. Look for kiosks with hand sanitizer to aid personal hygiene for times when hand washing is not accessible.
- Consider using the restroom in the airport v. airplane. In general, airports have increased the frequency of cleaning in their terminals, so a trip to the restroom prior to boarding may be safer than waiting until you are on the aircraft. Testing in 2017 concluded that many surfaces on a plane harbored more germs and bacteria than a toilet seat. InsuranceQuotes.com
- Wear a mask. More common than surface transmission, aerosols which are generated when we sneeze, cough, talk or breathe provide a way for disease to spread. Wear a mask and pack additional masks in clean plastic bags for use during and while returning from your trip. Even non-medical masks provide some degree of protection from viral-loaded aerosols for both the wearer and surrounding individuals. This can be particularly important while in the security line, in a crowded terminal or on the plane when it becomes impossible to avoid exposure to aerosols entirely. A new study concludes: “Both of our models show that, under a wide range of plausible parameter conditions, facemask use by the public could significantly reduce the rate of COVID-19 spread, prevent further disease waves and allow less stringent lock-down regimes. The effect is greatest when 100% of the public wear facemasks.” RoyalSocietyPublishing.org Most airlines require passengers to wear masks, as do many restaurants.
- Sanitize your space. Carry alcohol-based wipes for surfaces and a hand sanitizer which contains 60-70% alcohol for your hands. As transmission can occur through contact with contaminated surfaces such as the seat-back pockets, tray tables, seatbelt buckle, and armrests, consider using wipes on these surfaces at your seat. Don’t forget to periodically wipe the outside of the wipes container to keep it germ-free.
- Keep essential items accessible. With quick turn-around times it is unlikely the seatback pockets will have been disinfected. Where possible, pack so that the items you may need are accessible to you in your own bag under the seat.
- Maintain as much distance as possible from other passengers. If you are able, book a window seat and stay “seated for the duration of the flight, this may be your best bet for not getting sick from fellow passengers..” Emory Health Digest “… passengers in aisle seats had a significantly higher infection risk than others.” Pubmed
Many of the currently advised mitigation measures are common sense given what we know about transmission of COVID-19 and other pathogens. Being diligent and deliberate about practicing these measures now can help you form vital new habits which will soon become second nature and serve to help protect you from this and future health threats.
- Maintain social distancing practices. The New York Times surveyed more than 500 epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, asking when they expect to be comfortable doing 20 everyday activities again. The activity they were most likely to forego forever? “I think the handshake is dead,” one scientist responded.
- Don’t fly if you are feeling ill.
- Wash your hands well and often; When soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand gel.
- Don’t touch your face with unwashed hands.
- Use alcohol wipes to disinfect immediate surfaces you may touch.
- Wear a mask, particularly when in indoor public areas, and consider making this a regular practice. The same NY Times study shows the time frame experts currently believe that masks will be useful to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, traveling was something we took for granted. Booking a flight for work could be done at a moment’s notice with little thought other than our necessary itinerary. Planning a vacation meant jumping online to locate the lowest fare to our fun-filled destination. Finding ourselves with a couple of days off of work to create a long weekend, we would search airfare to narrow down our desired destinations for a little get away. Those carefree days, at least for the time being, are gone. On the positive side, learning the right prevention habits now can continue to serve us all through flu seasons and future health threats.
The good news is… You can live and travel with safety and health in mind if you are informed, aware, and diligent.