We spoke with medical, aviation, and travel experts to answer the question of whether or not it’s safe to fly during the pandemic. The answer is complicated, full of caveats, and, ultimately, a personal decision.

By Katherine Alex Beaven
Updated December 14, 2020
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Back in June, after months of stay-at-home orders and closed borders, cities around the world began the process of reopening, travel restrictions started to soften, and leisure travelers were itching to hit the road again. We saw tons of travelers dip their toes back in with road trips, day trips, and camping trips, while others headed back into the sky. However, even with more people taking flights again, airlines are still struggling to cover their bottom line and even keep their employees.

As COVID-19 cases rise to record numbers across the country, we can’t help but wonder: Is it safe to fly right now? According to the medical, mathematical, aviation, and travel experts we spoke with, the answer is complicated and comes with numerous caveats. While it may be safe to fly, that doesn’t mean it’s without risk. Ultimately, flying during the pandemic requires weighing the many variables and deciding how comfortable you feel getting back on a plane. Here’s what the experts have to say.

flight attendant face masks to passengers on an airplane
Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Getty

How clean is the plane?

In late May, when Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of The Points Guy, took his first flight since quarantine, he said there wasn’t even a single smudge mark on his in-flight TV screen. “Normally planes get turned around [for a new flight] every hour, and most flights get a very cursory cleaning,” he said. “You can feel the slime on the plane. This was different — it felt and looked spick and span.”

While specific cleaning procedures and the frequency with which they’re carried out vary by airline, most major airlines are disinfecting planes between flights, giving extra attention to high-touch surfaces and bathrooms. Additionally, airlines like United, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta, and Southwest have implemented the use of electrostatic antimicrobial sprays to thoroughly disinfect every nook and cranny of the cabin, either overnight or between certain flights. 

However, some fliers we spoke with have noted a slump in enhanced cleaning practices on board over time, particularly in the cabin, citing leftover wrappers, crumbs, or smudges in their seating area, though it depends on the specific airline and flight. Luckily, any lack of visible cleaning is something passengers can rectify on their end by wiping down their personal areas as soon as they board. Most airlines offer disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer to passengers, though all of the experts we spoke with suggested bringing your own just to be safe.

Many airplanes also use HEPA filters, which completely refresh the cabin air throughout the flight and work to filter out over 99% of airborne viruses, bacteria, and other contagions. However, as reported in an August 2020 National Geographic article, that’s only effective for air that has made it through the filtration system. If you’re sitting next to someone who is shedding the virus and not wearing a mask, you run the risk of inhaling virus particles before they can be filtered through the HEPA system. Plus, some airplane filtration systems do not start running at full capacity until the aircraft is airborne, meaning the air is not being recycled and filtered at the same rate when the plane is taxiing or grounded. That’s why wearing masks as much as possible for the duration of a flight and social distancing on board is imperative.

Is it safer to fly domestically or internationally? 

Travelers should consider the same factors — safety protocols, seat spacing, aircraft cleanliness, and flight time — for both types of flights. The main differentiating points to look at when deciding whether to fly domestic or international don’t actually have to do with the flights themselves, but focus rather on outside variables, such as where you’re going, infection levels at your destination, what precautions they have in place, if you’ll have access to adequate healthcare, and any travel restrictions or quarantine rules.

Dr. Winfried Just, a researcher in mathematical epidemiology and professor at Ohio University, and Dr. Georgine Nanos, a board-certified physician specializing in epidemiology, both agreed that the prolonged exposure of a long-haul flight could be riskier, but only because it leaves the door open that much longer for potential exposures. Longer flights mean more people using the bathrooms, more instances of masks being removed (even if just temporarily for eating and drinking), more exposure to anyone nearby who might be shedding the virus, and so on. Since flight times for both domestic and international flights can be anywhere between one hour and double-digits, it’s safer to choose destinations with shorter overall flight times.

Flying internationally carries a few pros that many domestic flights do not, namely due to the entry requirements of several international destinations. Many times, proof of a negative COVID-19 preflight or an on-site PCR test at the airport is required to board the plane. While pretesting functions as a way to keep any COVID-19 positive passengers from boarding a flight, it’s not a foolproof method. As reported in early December, a couple tested positive before their flight from California to Hawaii, but managed to get on board anyway. 

When it comes to flying during a pandemic, safety is measured on a sliding scale. Dr. Just cautions that “safe is never 100% safe,” since it’s impossible to completely eliminate risk.

American Airlines plane
Credit: SOPA Images/Getty

Consider safety protocols and enforcement.

There is evidence that wearing a face mask is key to preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, making this one of the easiest ways to help mitigate risk while traveling. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with a statement saying that masks not only protect the wearer, but also people around them.

Thankfully, every domestic airline in the U.S. and most international airlines have adopted and currently enforce a mandatory face covering policy — not only on planes, but in the airports as well — unless you are actively eating and drinking. Since PPE is more readily available, most airlines have appropriate masks available for noncompliant passengers or those wearing ineffective masks. There are also heavy consequences for passengers who refuse to wear a mask when required, including being banned from the airline. So far, over 1,000 people have been banned from certain airlines for refusing to wear a mask, according to The Points Guy.

Additionally, most airlines have also either suspended or limited food and drink service, removed literature in seatback pockets, and done away with any other nonessential service touchpoints that could elevate risk. In order to limit exposure to other passengers, travelers are also being asked not to wait in the aisles or galley for the lavatory.

However, there are mixed messages — and practices. On Dec. 11, 2020, Reuters reported that flight attendants working for United Airlines were being instructed by the airline to skip quarantine if their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19, continue flying, and just monitor for symptoms — a scary thought, particularly since COVID-19 presents as asymptomatic 40 to 50% of the time. 

Space is key.

Another major factor to consider when assessing the safety level of your flight is space. It’s worth researching the amount of space between passengers on your aircraft. More people means more possible exposures, which gets risky, especially when coupled with poor social distancing.

This is why Kelly highly recommends opting for airlines “that are making an effort to block middle seats. All prices being equal, [those airlines] are putting your safety above profits,” he said.

Right now, only Delta, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines are blocking middle seats to allow for social distancing — all other airlines are booking their planes to full capacity. Delta will block middle seats on flights through March 31, 2021; JetBlue promises to book up to 85% capacity on flights through Jan. 8, 2021; Alaska Airlines will block middle seats on flights through Jan. 6, 2021; and Hawaiian Airlines will stop blocking seats on flights after Dec. 15, 2020. Keep in mind that codesharing partners may or may not be blocking seats, so it’s important to check which airline is operating your exact flight.

Kelly also suggests looking into the aircraft that is scheduled for your flight. “International travel is off a cliff, and airlines are going to start putting bigger jets back on the market,” he explained. On his June United flight from Newark to Los Angeles, United swapped out the small plane that usually flies the route for a wide-body 787, which Kelly says is typically flown on long-haul flights to Israel. The larger plane created more space in all cabins, but was a specific plus for Kelly, who snagged extra privacy (and protection) in a pod-like business class seat.

Is it safer in business or first class?

For travelers wondering whether it’s worth splurging for a seat in business or first class for added safety, it depends. “Some airlines, including Delta and Alaska, are limiting the number of people seated in first class, so that is basically 50% of the capacity,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research. “So, if there are 12 [first-class] seats, there will be only six passengers, and there will be more physical distance around you.” While the experts agreed that there is likely to be more overall space, especially between passengers in first class, it’s likely not going to make much of a difference, unless you’re in a particularly secluded seat or suite, or the airline is limiting business or first-class capacity. Additionally, if your airline isn’t blocking middle seats in economy, the upgrade is definitely something to consider.

It’s also worth noting that while those seated in coach still have minimal or no food and drink service, upper class service is making a slow return with meal selections that go beyond snack boxes and drink options that include beer and wine. Keep in mind that the added food and beverage choices create more opportunity for people to take off their masks during a flight.

Expect changes in flight schedules. 

Due to the massive drop in demand, airlines have made significant cuts to their flight schedules. While flight schedules are operating at much higher percentages than just six months ago, most airlines are only running about 50% or less of their usual schedules. Fewer available flights means a smaller breadth of options when it comes to choosing what time or even what day to fly. Ideally, you should aim for non-peak flights and times, but it may just come down to what’s available. As domestic demand rises and airlines test their legs and schedules, domestic flights are more likely to ebb and flow, so expect disruptions, sudden changes, and/or flight consolidations. Depending on demand, the airline may change, cancel, or rebook you.

Dr. Nanos said this happened to her after she booked a domestic flight from San Diego to New York. Normally, there are eight daily nonstop options for this route, but she said, this time, there were only two — and then, after the flight she booked was canceled, only one.

Currently, international availability remains low, prompting Harteveldt to say, “The issue of leaving middle seats empty is moot on most long-haul flights because the demand simply isn’t there.” Recalling his own transatlantic flight home from Germany in May, Dr. Just says that the plane was empty. “There was one passenger every three rows,” he said. “And it felt completely safe.” This low capacity is one reason international flights may be a better bet, though international travel is still a lot trickier, due to ever-changing restrictions and entry requirements.

Is it safe to fly with family or friends? 

If you’re traveling with anyone else — be it family, friends, or a significant other — consider yourselves as one unit. “Family should sit together,” said Dr. Just. “Significant others and close friends, they should sit together — and away from others.” Splitting up or dispersing around the plane only increases the amount of exposure of the unit. Anyone traveling together should stick together and socially distance from other travelers. Middle seats are usually unblocked for parties traveling together.

Are there alternative options to commercial flights?

For those who can afford it, private charters offer a safer space, control over the details, and overall less risk than commercial flights. Andy Christie, global private jets director at Air Charter Service, a global charter brokerage service that helps connect travelers with private charter flights, says that taking a private charter flight can almost “completely minimize the risk of transmission,” simply by reducing the number of contact points and exposures. Private charters eliminate the need to wait in lines, share a plane with strangers, or even step foot inside a terminal.

The hop-on, short-haul jet service JSX offers a compromise: a private jet experience at near-commercial prices (average fares are $190 and include checked bags, seat assignments, snacks, and drinks, including alcohol — an item that was recently removed on some major airlines). Their flights operate out of private hangars and terminals, and planes have been reconfigured from 50 seats down to 30, giving passengers around 36 inches of seat pitch — or a similar seat experience to business class on a major domestic airline. CEO Alex Wilcox says JSX has also implemented new pandemic-focused safety features and procedures, like contactless check-in, mobile boarding passes, mandatory face masks, wiping down handles on checked luggage, and thermal screenings during the airline’s TSA-approved security check.

LaGuardia Airport
Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty

What about airports?

When we talk about the risks of flying, we also have to assume the risks of being in the airport. On the whole, airports are doing their part in creating safe, clean spaces for travelers. Harteveldt mentions that some precautions include touchless kiosks, frequent cleaning, hand sanitizer stations, self-removal of personal items during security checks, and plexiglass shields in front of traveler-facing employees, from gate agents to shop cashiers. Kelly notes that during his first experience back at Newark Liberty Airport, “Every hand sanitizer station in the airport was full to the brim, which is something I've never seen in my life.” He also notes that nearly everyone he came across was wearing a mask, which unfortunately isn’t guaranteed since rules vary from airport to airport.

“Airports are required to follow local laws or guidelines,” explained Harteveldt. “So, if there’s a state or local guideline that says that face coverings are required, you are required as a passenger to keep your face covering on.” He says there are exceptions, like if you’re eating or drinking, or going through TSA and need to pull down your mask to check your identification. This is worth looking into, especially if you are flying into a higher-risk destination where cases are rising. Tampa International Airport requires face masks to be worn by everyone, while Orlando International Airport only requires “badged employees” to wear face masks.

Still, Dr. Nanos urges travelers to make a comparable risk assessment. “Take the same precautions that you would take being indoors anywhere,” she advises, “whether you're going to a restaurant or movie theaters.”

Is it safer to fly if you’ve already had COVID-19 or tested positive for antibodies?

While some travelers who have already had the virus or tested positive for antibodies may have less anxiety over flying during a pandemic, they are not exempt from potential risk. “There is still so much we don’t know,” says Dr. Nanos. “We don't know how much immunity an antibody test carries for some people. We don't know if you can potentially get it again or at what point or in a different variation.” She also warns of antibody tests with false positives, and that making assumptions based on previous exposure or positive antibody tests can cause people to be more brazen and less cautious when traveling.

Is it safe to fly if you have pre-existing conditions or are in the at-risk category?

Unfortunately, rules and risks shift when it comes to travelers with pre-existing conditions or those who are in the vulnerable category for the novel coronavirus. “COVID-19 is not over,” said Dr. Just. “It certainly will not be over before the end of this calendar year, and it may go on for longer. So, think about it in these terms: If you are in that category and you want to take a risk, think about how important it is for you.” Dr. Nanos echoes and adds to this advice, saying, “It’s probably best for those people to kind of lay low for a little while, but again, it’s that level of personal risk that everyone is willing to assume.”

What about flying during the holiday season?

For the most part, assessing the risks of flying during the holidays isn’t much different than any other time. However, the holiday season is traditionally a high volume travel period. According to a survey conducted by The Vacationer, which stated that around 85 million Americans were expected to travel this year for Christmas, 2020 will be no different. Though this is a big drop from last year’s expected 115 million Christmastime travelers, it’s high for the pandemic. 

However, there are a few key points to consider. For starters, it doesn’t mean all 85 million people will be traveling by plane. If the 2020 travel trend sticks, more people will opt to travel by car or even train. In addition to a likely reduced number of people flying for the holidays, there may also be fewer people crammed in airports. Why? Unlike in previous years, many people are now working from home and aren’t only able to travel on the same days that bookend a holiday, resulting in less of a holiday rush and a more even distribution of travelers over several days. 

Yes, statistically there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases after long weekends and holidays, but so far, nothing has been specifically traced back to transmission on flights. In fact, there have been no reports of super-spreading events or notable COVID-19 transmissions that have been linked to flying since the widespread health and safety protocols have been in place. 

Understand the studies.

There have been multiple studies conducted on the safety of flying during the pandemic — most famously the Harvard study, which concluded that it was safer to fly than go to the grocery store, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) claim that you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get COVID-19 on a plane (the link to this study has been removed). There were also a batch of stories that came out in the late summer and early fall about flights that became super-spreader events, like the London to Hanoi flight and the flight to Ireland that was only 17% full, but managed to cause a COVID-19 outbreak that infected nearly 60 people. 

While these studies and events are reliable, they deserve a closer look. Most studies done around the safety of flying during the pandemic were executed with real-world variables. They used dummies, not real humans, and — most importantly — they only tested scenarios in which every single person was wearing a mask, all of the time. This is not always the case on a flight. On the flip side, the horror stories about infected flights came out months after the actual events happened, and more importantly, the flights took place before current health and safety protocols, like masks, social distancing, and testing were in place. 

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Each flight will present its own variables and level of risk. In September, after tracing 1,600 flights in which someone on board may have had COVID-19, the CDC reported to CNN that nearly 11,000 people were possibly infected from taking flights connected to these cases. The truth is, the lack of contact tracing and the virus’ long incubation period make it tough to undoubtedly link cases to flights.

Reduce your overall risk.

The number one thing is to recognize your responsibility. When determining whether or not to fly, consider your fellow passengers. “Start by wearing a covering,” said Harteveldt. “It’s a critical step travelers can take to reduce their potential to spread the virus. Remember, you may have the virus and be asymptomatic.” His sentiment was echoed by nearly everyone we spoke with. Harteveldt also suggests taking advantage of any and all mobile apps or contactless versions of the process, like using your own personal device to stream in-flight entertainment, avoiding checking bags, and planning your trip so you spend as little time as possible in the airport.

Dr. Just urges travelers to opt for the direct flight whenever possible. “It is much safer to take one flight,” he said. “If you’re taking several legs, you will sit next to several passengers.” Direct flights mean less airports and less exposures overall. In addition to wearing a mask, he also advocates for speaking up “for your own interest and the interest of your fellow passengers” whenever you see someone who is not wearing a mask. Kelly notes that you can also enlist the help of a flight attendant if you don’t feel comfortable calling someone out on your own.

Kelly also recommends that travelers reduce risk by driving themselves to the airport, wearing sunglasses for the duration of the flight to help prevent touching their face, investing in a face covering that will not easily fall down or slip, and packing their own snacks since in-flight service and airport vendors may be minimal.

Other expert tips include opening the in-flight air vent to help circulate the air around you, bringing your own stash of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and wiping down your entire seating area, packing your own blanket and pillow (provided you wash them between uses), and immediately sanitizing your hands every time you touch any surfaces or possible contaminants.

“If you want to wear a contraption or scrub down your seat, I would say that judgment is no longer there,” said Kelly. “Self-admittedly, I was not a big seat scrubber — not that I judged people who did — but now it's the norm. So have at it, and don't feel bad about having your own cleaning processes or your own food on the plane.”