Since the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, the UK government has advised that we should stay at home as much as possible and avoid all non-essential travel. However, for some people, travelling abroad is necessary. But is it safe to fly? And what precautions can you take to protect yourself from contracting coronavirus while on a plane?
We spoke to Dr Shawn Nasseri, renowned Harvard-educated, Mayo Clinic-trained ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT), who shared his thoughts on how safe it is to fly in the current climate and his guidelines for safer travel.
How safe is flying during the pandemic?
The risk is dependent on the density of passengers, the length of time of the travel exposure, and the hygiene of the cabin, vehicle, and its air handling/filtering system.
Low-density options, which airlines have moved to in order to reduce the number of passengers, have been a great improvement.
Spacing out passengers on buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation with much more frequent cleaning regimens, also helps substantially.
How does coronavirus spread on an airplane?
Covid-19 can spread through respiratory droplets from passengers coughing or sneezing while on board. These droplets can last on surfaces for hours depending on how infectious they are, so they can infect anyone who is within two rows of one another. While many airlines are touting HEPA filters as a safety precaution, with the air being recirculated in flight, there is still a risk of being exposed before the droplets are filtered or vented out.
The World Health Organisation defines contact with an infected person as being seated within two rows of one another. What's more, on long-haul flights, passengers are more likely to get up and move around in the cabin to stretch their legs, go to the toilet or reach for the overhead cabin.
Where is the safest place to sit on an airplane?
The window seat is the safest as you can better avoid passengers and flight crew walking up and down the aisle. Many airlines are taking precautions and not filling every seat, or not filling the middle seat so there is space between passengers, which is helpful.
A 2018 study found that most passengers left their seat at some point during a medium-haul flight. However, of those passengers sitting in a window seat, only 43 per cent moved around as opposed to 80 per cent of people seated on the aisle.
A window seat may lower your risk of coming into contact with an infected person as the study found window seat passengers had 12 contacts on average, compared to the 58 and 64 respective contacts for middle and aisle seats.
What should you do before you fly?
Take a solid stress multivitamin which can help your immune response to viral and other respiratory infections with travel.
13 safety tips for flying during the pandemic
If you are flying for essential reasons, the following tips may help you to stay safer:
1. Make sure to wear your mask throughout the entire flight to help protect yourself from any airborne particles.
2. Practice social distancing as much as possible, both at the airport and on the flight.
3. Stick to a carry-on bag, as it will go through the least sets of hands/contact.
4. Keep purses and other small carry-on bags closed and zipped up as much as possible, as this can be a source of exposure.
5. Use disinfecting wipes to sanitise your seat, seat belt, windows, and tray tables before being seated.
6. Use a wipe or paper towel to open and close high-traffic, high-touch areas like the overhead compartment, tray tables and restroom doors.
7. Use hand sanitiser throughout the flight after touching any surfaces, including the overhead bin, tray table and arm rests.
8. Try to avoid using the toilet on the plane, but if you are on a longer flight and that isn’t possible, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
9. Stay hydrated. This will allow your mucous membranes to function more efficiently.
10. As mentioned above, take a protective vitamin with immune boost – doses of vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals have shown definite improvement in immune response.
11. Bring your own freshly laundered or purchased travel pillow and blanket.
12. Wash your face and hands with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds after the flight.
13. Blow your nose as soon as you get off the flight. You can also moisten or rinse your nose with a sterile saline spray in order to maintain a moist protective barrier.
Last medically reviewed: 11-06-2020
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