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You Are On The Plane, Now What?

Updated: May 27, 2020

I can't personally wait to travel again, but being on a plane for hours with strangers worries me right now. How safe is it? Are others going to follow the same precautions I am following? What if my row partner is coughing?

Just like everything else related to travel right now, information about flying safety can be confusing and is constantly changing. Fortunately, I recently found an article from NPR that nicely covered the main points I care about. I summarize next some of them hoping you find them beneficial as well.

- The first thing to have in mind is that regardless of what you do, flying might be very stressful these days. Be mentally prepared for that. You might get anxious every time someone coughs or sneezes, even if that someone is you.

- You may be around people from all over the world. There will always be some risk at this point. There is no way to eliminate the risk, but you can do certain things to reduce your level of exposure.

- If you are flying with someone else, make sure you and your travel companion agree the trip is necessary or important, that is worth the risk and hassle, and have a clear idea on how to reduce exposure to your comfort level.

  • Know your medical background, and your travel partner's.

  • Have numbers to call in case of emergency available.

  • Discuss levels of tolerance for risk and inconvenience.

Are masks required?

All major U.S. airlines, and some overseas, now require employees and passengers to wear face coverings during flights except when eating or drinking. Very young children are exempted as are those with medical conditions that prevent wearing a face covering.

Social distancing on a plane?

Airlines are trying to provide more space. Many do not seat passengers in middle seats, like Delta, and if space allows, are seating passengers every other row. Others like American, are providing rows per passenger on some of their main routes, but then let passengers choose their own seats on shorter routes. In the case of United Airlines, beginning next week until the end of June, it will aim to inform passengers 24 hours before departure if their flight will be more than 70% full. Customers can opt to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit.

As more people start to fly, it will be more challenging to provide space on planes. We will be paying attention at what airlines offer in the months to come. For space information on a particular flight, contact the airline before buying the ticket so you can make an informed decision.

Is there a safer seat?

Aisle seats are more likely to expose you to contact others as they walk up and down the aisle, so middle and window seats might be "safer" in that regard. Also, passengers seated by the window are less likely to get up during the flight which reduces chances to get exposed.

Ultimately, as the experts cited in the article say, the best seat is the most distant from others.

Would hand sanitizer make any difference?

Yes! Use sanitizer gel after touching surfaces and door handles. Also recommended before eating a meal, and removing/putting on your mask. The places with most germs on airplanes are often the bathroom faucet handle, the slider that locks the lavatory door and the magazine pockets and tray tables. Stay aware of what you're touching, and sanitize your hands when needed.

When you use hand sanitizer, use several drops and rub for at least 20 seconds. Experts also recommend "carry around a pen to touch elevator buttons and the like, instead of using your fingers. Though then you need to be aware that you're carrying around a dirty pen."

Should I wipe my seat area before seating?

Airlines have improved their cleaning procedures. They are using fogging machines to disinfect, staff come through again with cleaning supplies to clean cabin surfaces like seat belts, window shades, tray tables and seat-back screens, and some airlines provide disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer during boarding.

In other words, airlines are suppose to be doing the cleaning for you, but do it if it would make you feel more comfortable. It is not a bad idea. You already know what places have the most germs, so wipe away if you want. Remember to wash your hands or use sanitizer after wiping surfaces.

Are cabin air filters effective?

The CDC says, "Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily." Air circulation is good inside cabins. Air is constantly being filtered and circulated. Most U.S. airlines use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems, which can theoretically remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says. "Particles that are larger or smaller are trapped with even higher efficiency."

The concern should really be contamination from someone seating within a 6 ft radius, just like in any other situation. If they are sick, and they cough or sneeze, some of that might land on you, or areas around you.

What can I do if someone starts coughing or sneezing a lot within the 6 ft radius?

First of all, hopefully that person is wearing a mask. If they're sitting close to you, try to move seats if possible. If you can't move seats, turn on the adjustable air duct above your head (gasper) to a medium flow and angling it so the air current is directed slightly in front of your face. Modeling studies have shown that opening the gasper for additional air flow "does create some extra turbulence in your personal air space and that might create enough turbulence where the particle doesn't sort of land on your mask or on your arm."

Quality of the masks, and how much you can seal them around your mouth and nose would also affect the level of exposure. //

Check out the actual NPR article for more details, citations, links, and experts' advice: Coronavirus FAQs: How Risky Is It To Fly? Is There Any Way To Reduce The Risks?

Ultimately, make sure you weigh pros and cons, and be ready to face travel. After all, flying is just the beginning of the journey.

Buen Viaje!

Things are constantly changing. Let us know if you have any news, corrections, or updates. Help us stay up to date.

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