Is It Safe to Fly Right Now? Here's What Experts Have to Say
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.
Last summer, 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 travelers dip their toes back in with road trips, daylong excursions, and camping getaways, while others headed back into the sky.
As we look toward summer travel this year, you might be wondering: 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.
How clean is the plane?
While specific cleaning procedures and the frequency with which they're carried out vary by airline, most major carriers 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 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 this 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 area as soon as they board. Most airlines offer disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer, 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 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 external variables, such as where you're going, infection levels at your destination, what precautions are in place, if you'll have access to adequate health care, 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 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 both domestic and international flights can last 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 overseas destinations. Many times, proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 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-positive passengers from boarding flights, 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 the 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.
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 face coverings. There are also heavy consequences for passengers who refuse to wear a mask when required, including being banned from the airline. So far, hundreds of passengers have been added to airlines' no-fly lists for noncompliance.
Additionally, some airlines have either suspended or limited food and drink service, removed literature in seatback pockets, and done away with any other nonessential service touch points that could elevate risk. In order to limit exposure, travelers are also being asked not to wait in the aisles or galley for the lavatory.
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. However, major domestic airlines are no longer blocking middle seats as of this month.
Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of The Points Guy, 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 United flight from Newark to Los Angeles in June, the airline swapped out the small plane that usually flies the route for a wide-body 787, which Kelly said 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. While the experts agreed that there is likely to be more overall space, especially between passengers in first class, it's probably not going to make much of a difference, unless you're in a particularly secluded seat or suite.
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 cuts to their flight schedules. While flights are operating at much higher percentages than a year ago, some airlines are still operating fewer routes. Fewer available flights means a smaller breadth of options when it comes to choosing what time or day to fly. Ideally, you should aim for nonpeak flight times, but it may just come down to what's available. As 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.
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.
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, said 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 (fares include checked bags, seat assignments, snacks, and drinks, including alcohol). 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 experience to business class seat on a major domestic airline. CEO Alex Wilcox said JSX has also implemented new pandemic-focused safety features and procedures, like mandatory face masks, enhanced cleaning, and more.
What about airports?
When we talk about flying, we also have to assume the risks of being in the airport. On the whole, airports are doing their part to create safe, clean spaces for travelers. Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research, said 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.
"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 mask on." He noted there are exceptions, like if you're eating or drinking, or going through TSA and need to pull down your mask to show identification. This is worth looking into, especially if you're flying into a higher-risk destination where cases are rising.
Still, Dr. Nanos urges travelers to make a comparable risk assessment. "Take the same precautions that you would being indoors anywhere, whether you're going to a restaurant or movie theater," she advised.
Is flying safer now that more people are vaccinated?
Now that vaccines are available throughout the United States, more people may feel comfortable flying again. Bryan Del Monte, aviation industry expert and president of The Aviation Agency, said, "As more people get vaccinated, flights are undoubtedly going to be safer." He added, "The vaccinated are less likely to transmit illness, less likely to contract any serious illness, and their vaccination helps negate the challenges of the two biggest factors in getting people sick on an aircraft: duration of exposure and proximity. Thus, as vaccination rates increase, I would conclude that airline travel becomes less and less likely a significant source of COVID-19 transmission."
And even though the CDC recently announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer have to wear masks in some circumstances, they're still required on airplanes and in airports. As the situation continues to evolve, mask requirements may vary from place to place, so check local regulations before 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. "So, think about it in these terms: If you are in that category and you want to take a risk, consider how important it is for you." Dr. Nanos echoed 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 or summer vacation?
For the most part, assessing the risks of flying during the holidays or summer vacation season isn't much different than any other time. However, these are traditionally high volume travel periods, and statistically, there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases after long weekends and holidays.
Understand the studies.
There have been multiple studies conducted on the safety of flying during the pandemic — and while some academic studies tout relative safety, other reports of airplane super-spreader events indicate that it is possible for the virus to spread on flights.
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 face 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 recommends 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 direct flights 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 fewer airports and 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 their 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."