These days air travel seems like a gamble.  Entering an airport, waiting in long lines, and sitting in an enclosed metal tube next to strangers you don’t know, for a prolonged period, seems to be a risky undertaking now.

Trying to evaluate the risks of air travel and travel in general in the age of COVID-19 brings to mind a scene from the 1978 movie Marathon Man, a suspenseful movie with a complicated plot and an all-star cast.  The relevant scene involves Dr. Christian Szell, a wanted Nazi war criminal played by Laurence Olivier, and Thomas “Babe” Levy, a history Ph.D. student played by Dustin Hoffman.  Szell kills Babe’s brother who Szell used to transport diamonds.  Suspecting that the brother gave Babe important information about Szells stash of diamonds, he kidnaps and tortures an ignorant Babe asking repeatedly, “is it safe.”

With respect to the safety of air travel, I’m not quite as clueless as poor Babe, but if asked “is it safe,” I can only say there is risk.  How much risk you are willing to accept is a personal decision that depends individual circumstances.

Airlines and Airports

What is clear is that some airlines and airports are taking extraordinary measures to be as safe as possible.  Airports are trying various tactics to minimize contact between people, promote social distancing, and conducting temperature checks.

Business Insider summarizes some of the steps U.S. airlines are taking for inflight COVID-19 safety.

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In addition at boarding, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines provide passengers with a disposable face mask and disinfecting hand wipes.  Airlines around the world are taking some of these measures and others.  Temperature checks can identify people who are sick.  I wish more airlines used them.

Just about every airline worldwide is disinfecting aircraft daily and requiring face coverings.  Some disinfect after every flight.  While face coverings are required, the level of enforcement depends on the airline and cabin crew.  And that requirement does not apply when passengers are eating or drinking.

I think blocking middle seats is important even if just for the psychological effect (not to mention additional space).  An empty middle seat does not provide six feet of distance but it is better than having to practically sit on top of the person next to you.

Commercial airplane travel still means flying in a confined space with other people. Another passenger’s droplet can easily invade your personal space even with no one in the middle seat beside you.

My last flights were on March 13, when the impact of the virus was just begining to be felt in the U.S.  I was flying from Bangkok with a stop in Hong Kong.  The outbound flights were very empty so social distancing was no problem.  On the return Cathay Pacific cancelled my flight and several others on the Bangkok to Hong Kong route, due to light loads I think.

The two-day delay was inconvenient but because several flights were cancelled, the flight that ultimately operated was packed.  There was no way to socially distance.  The flight from LAX to Charlotte was also totally full.  Those flights were not fun as passengers regarded each other as potential threats.  Being next to an empty seat would alleviate some anxiety even if it doesn’t eliminate the risk of transmission.

Perhaps the best defense against onboard transmission stems from the fact that modern mainline airliners come equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove from the air that passes through at least 99.95% (European Standard) or 99.97% (U.S. Standard) of particles whose diameter is equal to 0.3 microns.  That is sufficient to handle COVID-19.  Many hospitals use HEPA filters to control contamination is sensitive areas like operating rooms.  Unfortunately, it is possible that airborne COVID-19 droplets can contact passengers before being removed by the HEPA filters.

How Passengers Can Lower Their Risk

Here are some ideas that increase your onboard level of safety.

  • wear your best mask,
  • use hand sanitizer frequently,
  • sanitize all surfaces with wipes,
  • try to avoid eating, drinking,
  • minimize movement in the cabin like using the lavatory,
  • select a window seat to avoid aisle traffic,
  • if your flight is full, some airlines allow changing without penalty to another flight with a lighter load if you ask.

Final Thoughts

Is it “safe?”  Neither the experts nor the airlines (or me) are making any guarantees.  Before booking view the airline’s website for the latest information on the  precautions the airline is taking.  These precautions are subject to change.  Each person must weigh the risks in light of their individual circumstances such as age and health status.  If you fly, think about ways outlined here or elsewhere that can lower your risk.  Ultimately, as the saying goes “you pays your money and you takes your chances.”  If you do travel, be safe and well!