Dec 21, 2021

AIRLINES: A POTENT COVID VECTOR or SAFE?

Whether by air, land, or sea, traveling is very different now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all get back to visiting family and friends out of town or taking vacations, the question arises: Is it safe to fly?

While some studies suggest that traveling by airplane is a lower-risk activity, the answer is not as simple as yes, flying is safe. 

We put together some information to help you make a safe and informed decision for your future travel plans. 

How is COVID-19 transmitted?

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, and its variants are spread when an infected person breathes out droplets and microscopic particles that contain the virus. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are three main ways to transmit COVID-19

  • Breathing in air when an infected person exhales the particles containing the virus.

  • The particles and droplets containing the virus land on the eyes, nose, or mouth through a cough or sneeze.

  • Touching eyes, nose, or mouth with hands that have the virus on them.

How safe are planes in regards to COVID-19?

Office buildings, gyms, restaurants, and other indoor spaces, in general, are potent COVID transmitters for several reasons, like the lack of ability to social distance and air quality. 

The airflow in airplanes is much faster than indoor buildings. Half of it is fresh air from outside, while the other half is recycled through HEPA filters to assist in cabin air filtration. 

However, prior research has confirmed that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels relate to the airborne infection spread. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has established general guidelines for the health assessment of CO2 in indoor air, including recommendations for COVID-19.

The guideline categorizes between 1000 and 2000 ppm as questionable and anything above it as unacceptable. The highest CO2 levels happen on flights during the boarding and deboarding process, as passengers are close to one another and the aircraft ventilation is not yet fully active. (Numbers of 1600+ppm have been reported during these times)

Is there more airports and airlines could be doing?

There are several things that the travel industry, including airlines, could be doing that could be effective in helping to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

These include requiring: 

  • Fully vaccinated crews

  • Fully vaccinated passengers, ages five and above

  • High filtration masks- many people are wearing masks that don't fit correctly and/or don't protect

  • Pre-flight tests- some international destinations already have this setup

  • Increase air circulation while monitoring CO2 levels more closely 

What should you do when traveling by airplane to help guard against COVID-19?

No matter how much planning you do, there are still times when traveling should be rescheduled. First and foremost, you should not fly and stay home if you:

Think of the whole trip, not just flying

If you decide to fly, it's critical to consider your whole trip. The moment you walk out your front door, till you return home, is a potential risk of getting the virus. 

While this shouldn't deter you from traveling, it should remind you that every step of your trip needs to be met with precaution and safety in mind. From airport procedures and airline protocols to activities you engage in on your trip, you shouldn't discount the risk from any of these steps.

Before your flight 

During your flight

  • Minimize the amount of time on the plane before take-off and after landing- try to be one of the last to board the aircraft and one of the first off, once cabin doors open to reduce the risk of exposure.

  • Wear your mask during your flight as much as possible. Limit your eating and drinking time. 

  • Before take-off, wipe down the seat, armrests, seatbelt, tray table, etc., with disinfectant wipes.  

  • Use hand sanitizer often after touching surfaces, and wash hands with soap and water as soon as possible.

After your flight 

  • Self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms

  • Observe all state and local recommendations and requirements after travel.

  • If not vaccinated, self-quarantine and get tested with a viral test 3-5 days after returning.

Final thoughts

Airports and airlines have had to make significant adjustments to protect the  safety of their staff and passengers. They also have done a terrific job at enforcing protocols while keeping the environment calm and as normal as possible. 

While restricting air travel would be detrimental to more than just the travel industry, both airlines and travelers can take plenty of precautions to ensure their health and well-being. 

No matter how you choose to travel, it is your responsibility to follow local mandates and travel restrictions to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. Stay up-to-date by visiting the CDC's travel guidance website. 

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