All Of Your COVID Flying Questions, Answered

Kylie Gilbert
·8 min read

Martin Dm/Getty Images

If you (like me) have yet to fly since the pandemic hit, chances are you probably have some looming anxiety about the unknown of the whole experience — especially with new coronavirus cases spiking throughout the country. Sure, your friend who has been on five flights this summer said she felt totally safe, but ... are airlines actually taking the proper safety precautions? And, perhaps the larger question: If you don't have to fly right now is it a good idea, really?

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As far as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is concerned, that answer is no, which is why the agency is recommending against travel during the Thanksgiving period. “We understand that people want to see their family and relatives and do it as they’ve always done it. But this year we’re asking them to limit their travel,” Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager said in a news briefing last week. Still, more than 3 million Americans traveled this past weekend, and Sunday was the single-busiest day at airport checkpoints since March when the pandemic began, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

For those who are still contemplating booking a vacation or flying home for the holidays, we spoke to Neha Pathak, M.D., medical editor for WebMD, to get the low-down on flying during COVID.

Here, we break down our most pressing questions, to save you from Googling ...

How gross is plane air actually?

Surprisingly, not that gross! Planes tend to get a reputation for being germ-y, partially because people believe they're breathing in the same re-circulated air as everyone else on board — but it's much more high-tech. "The quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled. Ventilation provides a total change of air 20–30 times per hour," the World Health Organization (WHO) states on their website. While air is recirculated, it's first passed through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters — the same type used in hospital operating rooms and intensive care units — to trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi, and viruses, the organization adds.

“The air onboard is recirculated every two to six minutes with fresh, outside air or through HEPA filters that extract more than 99.99% of particles, including viruses," a Delta spokesperson tells InStyle, adding that Delta is "committing to changing these filters out twice as often as recommended by the manufacturer."

In fact, a report from United Airlines and the US Department of Defense released last month determined the risk of exposure to COVID on an airplane is "almost non-existent"— when seated and wearing a mask, that is. The researchers, who looked at the impact of an infected passenger on those seated nearby using robotic mannequins, found the risk of transmission of the virus through the air was reduced by 99.7% because of high air exchange rates, HEPA-filtered recirculation, and downward ventilation. (Most commercial aircraft are HEPA-equipped, with the exception of older or much smaller planes.)

So, does the airline I fly matter?

United Airlines has used its recent study findings to argue that full fights are NBD, as face masks are enough to block the transmission of COVID. Still, Delta has committed to block middle seats until Jan. 6, and Southwest Airlines has committed to doing the same through Thanksgiving.

As far as Dr. Pathak is concerned, you should stick with an airline that blocks middle seats (even if it is a pricier fare). "Along with masks, spacing is very important. I would certainly avoid using an airline that did not space out passengers," she says.

While many airlines are taking similar COVID safety precautions — including temperature checks for passengers at the gate, modified boarding process (back-to-front), and extended time between flights for thorough cleaning — you can check out a detailed ranking of the best and worst airlines from The Points Guy. Based on their criteria, the top spot overall went to Delta, which also earned a perfect cleaning score for procedures like electrostatic spraying with disinfectant before every flight. (For comparison, JetBlue conducts deep-cleaning — including electrostatic spraying over the interior of the aircraft — once per day.)

Unsurprisingly, low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit Airlines rank at the very bottom of The Points Guy's list, both for vague or lackluster cleaning procedures and for not taking any steps to limit flight capacity.

Is a shorter flight safer than a longer one?

Most likely. "The longer you are in a confined space with a crowd of people, the higher your risk probably is," says Dr. Pathak. When flying, that's because "there are more chances for an infected person to sneeze, cough, walk past you on the plane," she says. However, it's important to keep in mind that "it may not be the flight itself where you become infected." For this reason, she suggests also factoring in the time spent in security and during the boarding process.

What are the must-have items to bring on a flight?

"I haven't traveled by plane since the pandemic began, but my mother was stuck in India during the initial lockdown. When she was allowed to fly back I made sure she had a few things, which I would bring with me were I to fly," Dr. Pathak says. That list includes a few masks (in case one gets contaminated), sanitizing wipes for surfaces, and of course, hand sanitizer. While some airlines are distributing hand sanitizer upon request (Delta has partnered with Purell to install hand sanitizer stations both at the boarding door and outside the bathroom, for instance) it's still a good idea to come prepared with your own supply.

"I would also wear my glasses and avoid contacts," Dr. Pathak adds. In general, the CDC says there's no evidence to suggest contact lens wearers are at higher risk for COVID, however, those who wear contacts touch their face and eyes more than those who wear glasses, which makes practicing proper hand hygiene even more crucial. Plus, some research suggests the eyes can be a gateway for COVID-19 — and that wearing glasses may provide some element of protection. This is why some doctors, including Dr. Fauci, have recommended wearing goggles as an additional safety precaution.

What about face shields, gloves, or even hazmat suits?

"Some people use face shields on top of their face masks. You can consider that, but the face mask is a must. Face shields shouldn't be used in place of face masks," Dr. Pathak says. And when it comes to wearing rubber gloves, be mindful of using them properly. "Gloves are tricky. If you wear them you should make sure NOT to touch your face unless you remove them properly and wash your hands," she says.

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As for a full hazmat suit Naomi Campbell-style, Dr. Pathak says you're probably safe to skip it. "I don't think a hazmat suit is necessary ... the virus does not seem to travel well on clothing."

How risky is flying compared to other forms of transportation?

Bottom line: "Most experts agree traveling on a plane is relatively low risk for becoming infected with coronavirus IF the airline is making sure that everyone wears masks, screening for sick people, and spacing out seating," Dr. Pathak says. "This is especially true compared to a bus or a train."

However, compliance with these safety procedures is key. "From some early data, 14 travelers on a plane were infected by one person when no one was wearing a mask," she says.

So, should I fly during the holiday season? 

"This is a tough question. The problem is that even if you do everything right, traveling — especially around the holidays — will put you at risk of exposure," Dr. Pathak says. And despite what President Trump may tweet, asymptomatic transmission is still a real threat. It's possible to become infected during your travels, still feel great, and spread COVID-19 to others — "so you may really want to consider if that risk is worth exposing your loved ones to," Dr. Pathak adds. (This, again, is why the CDC is currently advising against flying right now.)

While the decision to fly for the holidays or not comes down to your individual risk-tolerance level and personal circumstances, there are, of course, practical considerations to keep in mind. Some states do have travel restrictions in place and these lists are updated constantly to match the current surge in cases. "Depending on where you're traveling from, you may need to quarantine yourself for two weeks before safely interacting with your loved ones (especially if you are concerned about older relatives)," Dr. Pathak says.

And while it should go without saying, here's just one more reminder, per the CDC: "Don’t travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days."