Coronavirus: How to stay safe on a flight

Helen Coffey
EPA

With international travel feasible again as of 10 July, when certain countries were made exempt from mandatory quarantine for travellers entering the UK, it may not be too long before we’re airborne.

But, for the foreseeable future, catching a flight is likely to be a very different experience compared to pre-Covid times.

From social distancing and wearing masks at the airport to limited food and no queuing for the toilet on planes, measures aimed at minimising the spread of coronavirus are being introduced.

But just how risky is flying? And is there any way to guarantee safety? Here’s everything you need to know.

How should I get to the airport?

Before you even arrive at the airport, there’s the getting to the airport bit to consider. Public transport carries a greater risk of coming into contact with new people and surfaces touched by others – and therefore a greater risk of coming into contact with coronavirus – than travelling by car.

However, as The Independent’s esteemed travel correspondent, Simon Calder, would point out, driving or getting a taxi carries its own risks: road traffic accidents claim around 1,800 lives in the UK every year.

Essentially, every mode of transport carries some kind of risk. But if your main concern right now is catching Covid-19, a car is probably the best way to go (being sure to wear a mask, keep the window open and wash your hands beforehand if you’re catching a cab).

How can I stay safe at the airport?

At the airport itself, new measures have been introduced, such as social distancing and mandatory face coverings for passengers and staff.

Although travellers often fixate on planes as a hotbed of germs, the airport is potentially a much more risky proposition, bringing together as it does people from all over the world.

Keeping your distance from those outside your household, regular hand washing or using hand sanitiser, and wearing a mask are the most important steps to take. But there are other ways to limit contact with others too: check in and print off your boarding pass in advance where possible, and limit yourself to hand luggage if you can.

This is at odds with the Department for Transport (DfT) advice, which on 11 June recommended passengers check in all baggage, saying: “This will speed up boarding and disembarking and minimise the risk of transmission.”

The intention was to reduce the amount of standing and waiting in the airport aisle.

However, Ryanair has a different take, arguing that taking hand luggage reduces the number of hands your bag passes through by a substantial amount, cutting out various baggage handlers on either side of the journey.

The airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary told The Independent: “We’re recommending passengers do exactly the opposite [of the DfT advice]: maximise carry-on bags and minimise checked-in bags. Even though, clearly, we make more money out of checked-in bags.

“Our logic has always been that checked-in bags are handled by eight pairs of hands, from the check-in desk to the boarding gate, all the way through to the arrival airport as well – whereas a carry-on bag the passenger keeps with them at all times.”

Avoiding checked-in luggage also means you don’t have to congregate around the baggage carousel with lots of other people after your flight. This means you’re better able to follow the DfT’s other piece of advice: “Leave the airport as quickly as possible.”

There are risks either way – but airlines have made it very clear they will not be reducing their, at times hefty, rates for checking in a bag.

Elsewhere, trays at security are often a hotbed of bacteria at airports as they pass through so many different hands each day. (A study conducted in 2016 even suggested the trays are home to more respiratory viruses than public toilets.) After you’ve gone through security and removed your items from the trays provided, ensure you sanitise or wash your hands as soon as possible, being sure not to touch your face in the meantime.

How can I stay safe on the aircraft?

On board the aircraft, the DfT advises passengers to: remain seated as much as possible; follow instructions and guidance from crew; use contactless payment where possible; be aware there is likely to be a reduced food and drink service; and make the cabin crew aware if you become ill.

Most airlines will require you to wear a mask onboard when not eating or drinking, and will provide hand sanitiser. Some, such as Qatar Airways, are even making passengers wear face shields as well as masks.

If you’re flying short-haul, going to the toilet just before boarding could help eliminate the need to go while on the aircraft, meaning less movement around the cabin and less chance of coming into contact with a coronavirus carrier.

Both Ryanair and easyJet have announced new policies to avoid queues for the toilet forming in the aisle – but not going at all carries the lowest risk.

This may seem like hair splitting, but studies have shown that those who move a lot around the cabin are more likely to pick up a bug.

In a 2018 study tracking the “behaviours, movements and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights”, a research team led by Atlanta’s Emory University found that those in window seats had far fewer encounters with other passengers than people in other seats.

This is due in large part to the fact that those by the window were less likely to get up from their seat, with just 43 per cent moving around the aircraft compared to 80 per cent of people in aisle seats – meaning they were less likely to come into contact with potential virus carriers.

One of the study’s diagrams showed the likelihood of travellers coming into contact with one designated infectious passenger based on where they’re sitting. Other than those sitting on the same row as patient zero, all window seat passengers had a 5 per cent or less chance of coming into contact. Most had a 0-1 per cent probability, far lower than their middle and aisle seat counterparts.

Opting to take a window seat could, therefore, lower your risk of catching something – but the most important thing to remember is that the less you move around the plane, the lower the likelihood of you coming into contact with a virus carrier.

Are planes more dangerous than other modes of transport because of the air circulating?

The same study mentioned above highlighted that the risk of catching something on a plane is pretty low.

The probability of actually being infected by “patient zero” was just 0-1 per cent for the vast majority of all passengers, apart from those sitting on the same row or across the aisle.

Many travellers have the misconception that they are more likely to get ill after a flight because they presume the “same air”, carrying every passenger’s sniffle, sneeze or cough, is getting recycled and pumped around the aircraft.

In fact, modern jets have very advanced air filtration systems, making transmission via the air you breathe onboard extremely unlikely.

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for Covid-19, recently said that air travel is “relatively safe” when it comes to the spread of coronavirus.

“So the one good thing about aeroplanes is that the ventilation system includes really powerful filters which means that in our view they are relatively safer,” he told BBC News.

“Given the excellent ventilation system on modern commercial aircraft and that the main method of transmission [of respiratory infections] is by direct contact and/or airborne droplet, most risk is isolated to those passengers sitting in the same row or that behind or in front of someone sick,” Dr David E Farnie, medical director of Global Response Centre for MedAire Worldwide, told The Independent.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which has done extensive research on the topic of air transport and communicable diseases, backs up the assertion that people onboard an aircraft are no more likely to fall ill than anyone in a confined space.

Its fact sheet on Public Health Emergency Preparedness highlights the importance of modern air filters on planes, which “have a similar performance” to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.

“Hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are effective at capturing greater than 99.9 per cent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air.”

The modern cabin air system delivers around 50 per cent fresh air and 50 per cent filtered, recirculated air.

“Air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free,” says IATA.

In essence, getting on a plane carries a similar risk to entering any confined space with others, such as a train or bus.

What are airlines and airports doing to maximise safety?

IATA has recently published a “roadmap for restarting aviation”, advising governments on how to reopen the industry.

Rather than focusing on time inside the aircraft, it highlights time spent in the airport, where large numbers of people come into contact with each other.

IATA is calling for passengers to provide health and contact information prior to arrival, check-in remotely and print out boarding cards and luggage tags at home. Other suggestions include introducing temperature testing at entry points, limited access to terminals and the use of automated bag drops at the airport.

Gatwick Airport has put up protective screens at various points including check-in, boarding and at the gates. It has also made mask-wearing mandatory for staff and travellers, installed hand sanitiser stations throughout the airport, changed seating arrangements to ensure social distancing, and introduced tannoy announcements and signs reminding passengers to socially distance and regularly wash their hands.

According to a BBC report, IATA vice-president Nick Careem emphasised the need for “enhanced and frequent” deep cleaning of the aircraft cabin, adding that the actual flight is relatively low risk and that “physical distancing on board is not necessary”.

Some airlines that have started operated flights again, including easyJet, are requiring passengers to wear a mask once onboard; Ryanair has stipulated that travellers must ask a flight attendant before they can use the toilet to prevent queues from forming.

Most airlines have eliminated or reduced their food and drink offering, plus are demanding contactless payment onboard.

Some airports, such as Pittsburgh in the US, have even deployed ultraviolet cleaning robots to kill microbes in frequently used areas.

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