BY KATHERINE ALEX BEAVEN JUNE 25, 2020
We spoke with medical, aviation, and travel experts to answer the question of whether or not it’s safe to fly right now. The answer is complicated and comes with caveats.
We spoke with medical, aviation, and travel experts to answer the question of whether or not it’s safe to fly right now. The answer is complicated and comes with caveats.
After months of stay-at-home orders and closed borders, cities around the world have begun the process of reopening, travel restrictions have started to soften, and leisure travelers are itching to hit the road again. Some travelers are dipping their toes back in with road trips, day trips, and camping trips, while others have their eye on the sky. Airlines are still struggling and only running just a fraction of their usual flights, but passenger numbers are slowly rising, particularly in the U.S. As more travelers start taking advantage of the loosened restrictions and reopenings, dare we say things are looking up for air travel?
Even still, is it actually safe to take a flight right now? According to the medical, mathematical, aviation, and travel experts we spoke with, the answer is complicated and comes with numerous caveats. While it may be safe to fly, that doesn’t mean it’s without risk. In a nutshell, it all boils down to weighing the many variables and deciding how comfortable you feel getting back on a plane. Here’s what the experts have to say.
How clean is the plane?
Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of The Points Guy, recently took his first flight since quarantine and said there wasn’t even a single smudge mark on his in-flight TV screen. “Normally planes get turned around [for a new flight] every hour, and most flights get a very cursory cleaning,” he said. “You can feel the slime on the plane. This was different — it felt and looked spick and span.”
While specific cleaning procedures and the frequency with which they’re carried out vary by airline, most major airlines are disinfecting planes between flights, giving extra attention to high-touch surfaces and bathrooms. Many airplanes also use HEPA filters, which completely refresh the cabin air throughout the flight and work to filter out over 99 percent of airborne viruses, bacteria, and other contagions. Additionally, airlines like United, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta, and Southwest have implemented the use of electrostatic antimicrobial sprays to thoroughly disinfect every nook and cranny of the cabin, either overnight or between certain flights. Many airlines are also offering disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer to passengers, though all of the experts we spoke with suggested bringing your own just to be safe.
Is it safer to fly domestically or internationally?
Travelers should consider the same factors — safety protocols, seat spacing, aircraft cleanliness, and flight time — for both types of flights. The main differentiating points to look at when deciding whether to fly domestic or international don’t actually have to do with the flights themselves, but focus rather on outside variables, such as where you’re going, infection levels at your destination, what precautions they have in place, if you’ll have access to adequate healthcare, and any travel restrictions or quarantine rules.
Dr. Winfried Just, a researcher in mathematical epidemiology and professor at Ohio University, and Dr. Georgine Nanos, a board-certified physician specializing in epidemiology, both agreed that the prolonged exposure of a long-haul flight could be riskier, but only because it leaves the door open that much longer for potential exposures. Longer flights mean more people using the bathrooms, more instances of masks being removed (even if just temporarily for eating and drinking), more exposure to anyone nearby who might be shedding the virus, and so on. Since flight times for both domestic and international flights can be anywhere between one hour and double-digits, it’s safer to choose destinations with shorter overall flight times. That being said, when it comes to flying during a pandemic, safety is measured on a sliding scale. Dr. Just cautions that “safe is never 100 percent safe,” since it is impossible to completely eliminate risk.
Consider safety protocols and enforcement.
There is mounting evidence that wearing a face mask is key to preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, making this one of the easiest ways to help mitigate risk while traveling. More and more airlines are starting to require face coverings, including Delta, United, American, JetBlue, and Southwest — sometimes with hefty consequences, like being banned from the airline if you don’t comply. Some airlines, like JetBlue, even require passengers to wear face coverings over their mouths and noses throughout check-in, boarding, in flight, and while deplaning, while others may only require that masks be worn on board.
Most airlines have also suspended food and drink service, removed literature in seatback pockets, and done away with any other nonessential service touchpoints that could elevate risk. In order to limit exposure to other passengers, travelers are also being asked not to wait in the aisles or galley for the lavatory.
Space is key.
Another major factor to consider when assessing the safety level of your flight is space. It’s worth researching the amount of space between passengers on your aircraft. More people means more possible exposures, which gets risky, especially when coupled with poor social distancing. American Airlines will lift capacity restrictions on flights starting July 1, reversing its decision to limit flights to 85 percent volume. Once on board, passengers will be permitted to switch seats within their ticketed cabin, depending on availability. United Airlines will also fill flights to full capacity. Currently, passengers flying with United have the option to rebook or receive travel credits for any flight that is at a higher than expected capacity. Passengers will be notified 24 hours before their flight if it is likely to be full.
This is why Kelly highly recommends opting for airlines “that are making an effort to block middle seats,” like Delta, Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue. “All prices being equal, [those airlines] are putting your safety above profits,” he said. Delta will limit capacity and block middle seats through Sept. 30, capping the main cabin at no more than 60 percent. Meanwhile, Southwest will keep middle seats open through at least Sept. 30, and Alaska Airlines will follow suit through July 31.
Kelly also suggests looking into the aircraft that is scheduled for your flight. “International travel is off a cliff, and airlines are going to start putting bigger jets back on the market,” he explained. On his recent United flight from Newark to Los Angeles, United swapped out the small plane that usually flies the route for a wide-body 787, which Kelly says is typically flown on long-haul flights to Israel. The larger plane created more space in all cabins, but was a specific plus for Kelly, who snagged extra privacy (and protection) in a pod-like business class seat.
Is it safer in business or first class?
For travelers wondering whether it’s worth splurging for a seat in business or first class for added safety, it depends. “Some airlines, including Delta and Alaska, are limiting the number of people seated in first class, so that is basically 50 percent of the capacity,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research. “So, if there are 12 [first-class] seats, there will be only six passengers, and there will be more physical distance around you.” While the experts agreed that there is likely to be more overall space, especially between passengers in first class, it’s likely not going to make much of a difference, unless you’re in a particularly secluded seat or suite, or the airline is limiting business or first-class capacity. Additionally, if your airline isn’t blocking middle seats in economy, the upgrade is definitely something to consider.
Expect changes in flight schedules.
Due to the massive drop in demand, airlines have made significant cuts to their flight schedules. United, for example, is only flying 10 percent of its scheduled flights. Fewer available flights means a smaller breadth of options when it comes to choosing what time or even what day to fly. Ideally, you should aim for non-peak flights and times, but it may just come down to what’s available. As domestic demand rises and airlines test their legs and schedules, domestic flights are more likely to ebb and flow, so expect disruptions, sudden changes, and/or flight consolidations. Depending on demand, the airline may change, cancel, or rebook you.
Dr. Nanos said this happened to her after she booked a domestic flight from San Diego to New York. Normally, there are eight daily nonstop options for this route, but she said, this time, there were only two — and then, after the flight she booked was canceled, only one. She’s still planning on traveling, but the change raised some flags. “There aren’t that many people flying [right now],” she said. “But I can’t imagine that there’s that few and how they would retain the empty seats. So, I am a little concerned about that.”
Currently, international demand remains low, and Harteveldt says that it’s rare for an international flight to reach even 50 percent capacity. “The issue of leaving middle seats empty is moot on most long-haul flights because the demand simply isn’t there,” he added. Recalling his own transatlantic flight home from Germany in May, Dr. Just says that the plane was empty. “There was one passenger every three rows,” he said. “And it felt completely safe.” This low capacity is one reason international flights may be a better bet, though international travel is a lot trickier due to restrictions, cautious borders, and cities that may not yet be ready to entertain tourists.
Is it safe to fly with family or friends?
If you’re traveling with anyone else — be it family, friends, or a significant other — consider yourselves as one unit. “Family should sit together,” said Dr. Just. “Significant others and close friends, they should sit together — and away from others.” Splitting up or dispersing around the plane only increases the amount of exposure of the unit. Anyone traveling together should stick together and socially distance from other travelers.
Are there alternative options to commercial flights?
For those who can afford it, private charters offer a safer space, control over the details, and overall less risk than commercial flights. Andy Christie, global private jets director at Air Charter Service, a global charter brokerage service that helps connect travelers with private charter flights, says that taking a private charter flight can almost “completely minimize the risk of transmission,” simply by reducing the number of contact points and exposures. Private charters eliminate the need to wait in lines, share a plane with strangers, or even step foot inside a terminal.
The hop-on, short-haul jet service JSX offers a compromise: a private jet experience at near-commercial prices (average fares are $190 and include checked bags, seat assignments, snacks, and drinks, including alcohol — an item that was recently removed on some major airlines). Their flights operate out of private hangars and terminals, and planes have been reconfigured from 50 seats down to 30, giving passengers around 36 inches of seat pitch — or a similar seat experience to business class on a major domestic airline. CEO Alex Wilcox says JSX has also implemented new pandemic-focused safety features and procedures, like contactless check-in, mobile boarding passes, mandatory face masks, wiping down handles on checked luggage, and thermal screenings during the airline’s TSA-approved security check.
What about airports?
When we talk about the risks of flying, we also have to assume the risks of being in the airport. On the whole, airports are doing their part in creating safe, clean spaces for travelers. Harteveldt mentions that some precautions include touchless kiosks, frequent cleaning, hand sanitizer stations, self-removal of personal items during security checks, and plexiglass shields in front of traveler-facing employees, from gate agents to shop cashiers. Kelly notes that during his first experience back at Newark Liberty Airport, “Every hand sanitizer station in the airport was full to the brim, which is something I’ve never seen in my life.” He also notes that nearly everyone he came across was wearing a mask, which unfortunately isn’t guaranteed since rules vary from airport to airport.
“Airports are required to follow local laws or guidelines,” explained Harteveldt. “So, if there’s a state or local guideline that says that face coverings are required, you are required as a passenger to keep your face covering on.” He says there are exceptions, like if you’re eating or drinking, or going through TSA and need to pull down your mask to check your identification. This is worth looking into, especially if you are flying into a higher-risk destination where cases are rising. Tampa International Airport requires face masks to be worn by everyone, while Orlando International Airport only requires “badged employees” to wear face masks.
Still, Dr. Nanos urges travelers to make a comparable risk assessment. “Take the same precautions that you would take being indoors anywhere,” she advises, “whether you’re going to a restaurant or movie theaters (which are now open here in California).”
Is it safer to fly if you’ve already had COVID-19 or tested positive for antibodies?
While some travelers who have already had the virus or tested positive for antibodies may have less anxiety over flying during a pandemic, they are not exempt from potential risk. “There is still so much we don’t know,” says Dr. Nanos. “We don’t know how much immunity an antibody test carries for some people. We don’t know if you can potentially get it again or at what point or in a different variation.” She also warns of antibody tests with false positives, and that making assumptions based on previous exposure or positive antibody tests can cause people to be more brazen and less cautious when traveling.
Is it safe to fly if you have pre-existing conditions or are in the at-risk category?
Unfortunately, rules and risks shift when it comes to travelers with pre-existing conditions or those who are in the vulnerable category for the novel coronavirus. “COVID-19 is not over,” said Dr. Just. “It certainly will not be over before the end of this calendar year, and it may go on for longer. So, think about it in these terms: If you are in that category and you want to take a risk, think about how important it is for you.” Dr. Nanos echoes and adds to this advice, saying, “It’s probably best for those people to kind of lay low for a little while, but again, it’s that level of personal risk that everyone is willing to assume.”
Reduce your overall risk.
The number one thing is to recognize your responsibility. When determining whether or not to fly, consider your fellow passengers. “Start by wearing a covering,” said Harteveldt. “It’s a critical step travelers can take to reduce their potential to spread the virus. Remember, you may have the virus and be asymptomatic.” His sentiment was echoed by nearly everyone we spoke with. Harteveldt also suggests taking advantage of any and all mobile apps or contactless versions of the process, like using your own personal device to stream in-flight entertainment, avoiding checking bags, and planning your trip so you spend as little time as possible in the airport. If you’re waiting at the airport, he recommends passing the time on an outdoor terrace, if possible.
Dr. Just urges travelers to opt for the direct flight whenever possible. “It is much safer to take one flight,” he said. “If you’re taking several legs, you will sit next to several passengers.” Direct flights mean less airports and less exposures overall. In addition to wearing a mask, he also advocates for speaking up “for your own interest and the interest of your fellow passengers” whenever you see someone who is not wearing a mask. Kelly notes that you can also enlist the help of a flight attendant if you don’t feel comfortable calling someone out on your own.
Kelly also recommends that travelers reduce risk by driving themselves to the airport, wearing sunglasses for the duration of the flight to help prevent touching their face, investing in a face covering that will not easily fall down or slip, and packing their own snacks since in-flight service and airport vendors may be minimal.
Other expert tips include opening the in-flight air vent to help circulate the air around you, bringing your own stash of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and wiping down your entire seating area, packing your own blanket and pillow (provided you wash them between uses), and immediately sanitizing your hands every time you touch any surfaces or possible contaminants.
“If you want to wear a contraption or scrub down your seat, I would say that judgment is no longer there,” said Kelly. “Self-admittedly, I was not a big seat scrubber — not that I judged people who did — but now it’s the norm. So have at it, and don’t feel bad about having your own cleaning processes or your own food on the plane.”