News | Published June 29, 2020 | Written by Paul Guillard, MD, Mount Nittany Physician Group Internal Medicine

Is it safe to fly now? Here’s what you should know

Paul Guillard, MD, internal medicine, Mount Nittany Physician Group

As states, businesses, national parks, and more reopen, you may be wondering if it is safe to fly. The short answer is all travel increases your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. The long answer is more complicated and personal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick and recommends traveling only if it is necessary.

If you are considering travel, there are several items to think about, starting with the health and risk factors for becoming very ill from COVID-19 for yourself, those you are traveling with, and those you live with. As a reminder, these risk factors include an age of 65 or older; chronic heart, lung, liver, and/or kidney disease; diabetes; immunocompromised conditions; and obesity. You’ll also want to understand if COVID-19 is spreading where you’re planning to go or within your home community. Be aware of state or local government requirements: some are requiring travelers to self-isolate when they arrive or when they return home.

You’ll also want to think about the importance of your trip and how necessary it is, as well as your own tolerance for risk and inconvenience. At this point, we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others.

Airplane air circulation systems have strong filtration abilities—removing up to 99.97 percent of airborne particles—making it more challenging for viruses and other germs to spread. However, there is still risk of transmission related to proximity to other passengers and high-touch surfaces or objects.

Social distancing in airports and on planes may be challenging. Spending time in security lines and airport terminals can bring you into close contact with others and frequently touched surfaces. Aisle seats are more likely to lead to increased contact with other passengers and crew members as they walk up and down the aisle or take something out of overhead bins, so consider a window seat.

Right now many airlines are not seating passengers in middle seats and are seating passengers every other row, as able. But these measures will be harder to keep up as more people return to flying. You could find yourself seated near someone who starts to sneeze or cough uncontrollably during the flight and you may not have an alternative seat to move to. You will not be able to control the flight environment, so you will have to be prepared to face certain anxieties and risks.

Airlines have increased their cleaning protocols, including disinfecting cabins with fogging machines that spray disinfectants. Staff also manually wipe down surfaces like seat belts, window shades, tray tables, and seat back screens. It’s a good idea to bring disinfecting wipes with you as well.

If you do decide to fly, be sure to pack your hand sanitizer too. The germiest places on airplanes are often the bathroom faucet handle, the slider that locks the lavatory door, magazine pockets, and tray tables. If you use the bathroom during your flight, use hand sanitizer when you return to your seat. Be aware of everything you touch and sanitize your hands as needed.

Most airlines require passengers to wear face coverings, and airports are urging individuals to wear them as they pass through security and wait at their gates as well. At security checkpoints, passengers are scanning their boarding passes themselves instead of handing them to a TSA agent. And loose items like belts, wallets, and phones should be placed in carry-on bags, not bins, to reduce touch-points.

Airlines are implementing additional practices like leveraging smartphone technology for touchless printing of baggage tags, pre-flight or during check-in screening processes, and options for changing travel plans without penalty. For specific questions about what measures each airline is taking, check their website or give them a call.

The decision to fly is one you must make based off your circumstances and tolerance for risk. Whether you choose to travel or not, the everyday precautions of wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and frequently washing your hands will help keep you safe.

For information on how you can stay safe and ways Mount Nittany Health is caring for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit mountnittany.org/coronavirus.

Paul Guillard, MD, is a provider with Mount Nittany Physician Group Internal Medicine. Dr. Guillard sees patients at the Mount Nittany Health—Blue Course Drive location.