As a physician and a travel blogger I often get asked whether it is safe to fly during the pandemic. Air travel has been on rise since Coronavirus cases started to drop while COVID-19 vaccinations rose across the country. Therefore, this is a great time to discuss tips for safe air travel during COVID-19. Because-yes-the pandemic is still going on.
For the record the CDC has released travel recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers. I suggest reviewing them prior to any travel.
There are several measures airlines have put into place in order to limit the risks of passengers becoming infected with Coronavirus on airplanes. But being on the airplane is not the only thing you need to be concerned about. You need to consider your time in the airport, security, boarding, baggage claim, in restaurants and airport lounges.
Airlines do have mask requirement for all passengers over the age of 2, boarding from the back of the plane to the front, social distancing while boarding and de-boarding, limited food & beverage service to limit mask removal, disinfecting planes in between flights and the use of special air filters.
In addition, for many destinations, including return flights to the US, COVID-19 testing is also required. However, nothing is 100%. There have been reports of passengers becoming infected with Coronavirus on flights. It is best to protect yourself as much as possible flying during the pandemic. And, if you are doing international travel-the CDC recommends getting vaccinated prior to travel (as do I).
What to Ask Before Flying During the Pandemic
Here are the questions you should ask yourself prior to air travel during COVID-19.
1. How many days in advance should you get a COVID-19 test before flying, and what kind of test?
This depends on the destination you are traveling to. Some destinations have very specific guidelines as to the type of test (antigen test vs PCR test) and the length of time the test can be done prior to departure to the destination-72 hours or up to 7 days for example. Hawaii even has a list of approved testing sites. As of January 26, 2021 the United States requires everyone entering the country to have a COVID-19 PCR or antigen test no more than 3 days prior to boarding a plane to the United States.
2. Should you quarantine after taking a COVID-19 test until your flight?
Yes. As much as possible. This is to lower the chances of exposing yourself to someone that has the virus and getting infected between when you take the test and your departure.
3. How do you choose between airlines? Is one airline safer than the next? What should I look for?
Temperature taking, required negative COVID-19 tests, required mask-wearing, paperless check-in: these are all good things to check for. I think the most important criteria is requiring passengers to wear masks in flight. We know that the #1 way the virus is spread is by respiratory droplets so covering the nose and mouth is crucial to reducing spread. Studies have shown up to 50% of people with COVID-19 do not have a temperature so I think this gives a false sense of security.
4. What kind of masks should I wear on a flight? Will a scarf be enough?
For US flights all passengers over the age of 2 are required to wear a mask that fully covers the nose and mouth. If someone wears a face shield over a mask that does offer increased protection, but a face shield alone does NOT take the place of a mask. The more layers a mask has the better. Cloth masks with filters are great and you can also double mask.
All masks should have a good seal around your nose and mouth and should not have exhalation valves, slits or punctures. That rules out surgical masks. If you are immunocompromised, elderly or in a high-risk category and will be on long flights, consider a N95 if that is available to you. Neck gaiters and bandanas do not offer much protection.
5. Is flying during the pandemic safe to do with kids?
Many adults are getting vaccinated. But for families the question remains if they can fly with unvaccinated children. I recently discussed this topic in an article for Outside magazine. On US flights all children age 2 and over are required to wear masks. But we know how difficult it is for young children to do so for short and definitely long periods of time. Consider the ages of your children and the length of flights when deciding to fly with kids during the pandemic. If possible, pick shorter, direct flights.
6. What should I pack to clean on the plane?
Another great tip for safe air travel is to bring gloves, Clorox or Lysol or similar disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and and a garbage bag. Wipe off the tray tables, monitor, arm rests, window, and seat belt. Put the wipes and gloves in the garbage bag. Give the bag to the flight attendant when they are collecting the trash. You may wipe down leather, faux leather or vinyl seats but do not wipe down cloth seats. There is a small chance this may spread the virus around if it is on the cloth surface.
Sanitize your hands after touching surfaces that have not been cleaned. Also sanitize your hands after eating, leaving your seat and returning, after touching someone else’s hands and after going to the bathroom.
7. What behaviors should be avoided on the airplane (going to the bathroom? eating?)
The recommendation while flying during the pandemic is to keep face masks on unless you are eating or drinking. Try to limit both during a flight. If it is a shorter flight, try to eat before so that you will not need to eat during your flight. Avoid using the bathroom if possible. Grabbing a window seat furthest from the bathrooms and staying put is your safest bet. These are considered the safest seats on the plane.
There was a case of COVID-19 spread on a flight to Ireland that was only 17% full. The thought is that passengers became infected by moving around the airplane and using the bathroom.
8. SOOO should I avoid drinking so I will not have to use the bathroom and risk getting dehydrated? What about walking around to reduce the risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis) on long-haul flights?
Safe air travel during COVID-19 can be tricky. Hydration is very important on a flight to avoid DVT-deep vein thrombosis. If you do have to use the bathroom, wash your hands thoroughly and use hand sanitizer on return to your seat. This brings up a good point in terms of long-haul flights. It is still important to wear compression socks, get up and stretch to avoid DVTs. Just be certain to wear your masks while doing so and use hand sanitizer when you return to your seat.
9. What should a passenger do if someone isn’t wearing a mask or is not wearing it properly i.e.not covering the nose? What if someone is showing signs of illness on a flight?
Report this immediately to the flight attendant. If the person will not comply or appears to be ill, ask if you can move your seat.
I hope you have found these tips for safe air travel during COVID-19 to be very helpful. Flying during the pandemic can be stressful but hopefully once you arrive at your destination it will be all be worth it.
Before you leave, be sure to read my blog post that summarizes the current vaccines available in the United States. If you do plan to fly and travel, do it as safely as possible.
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Dr. Nadeen White is a "Blogger by Day, Physician by Night". She is an award-winning travel blogger, Amazon bestselling author and speaker. The Sophisticated Life Blog covers affordable luxury travel, culinary travel and wine. Her domestic and international travel guides gets people to the destinations of their dreams. So, if you are living the sophisticated life or desire to do so, this is the blog for you!