On Planes and Pandemics: Traveling With CoronavirusPlanes are returning to the skies as coronavirus lockdown measures are relaxed. But what does air travel even look like now that we're living in the new normal?

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On Planes and Pandemics: Traveling With Coronavirus

Are planes safe yet? And what does air travel look like in the new coronavirus landscape, anyway?

travel on public transport

Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I’m itching to travel. The trouble is, I’m not sure I’m ready to board a plane in the middle of a pandemic, and I don’t know when I will be. But what does air travel even look like now that we’re living in the new normal –one in which every aspect of our lives has been reshaped by COVID-19?

The skies have been quiet since people all over the world started avoiding non-essential travel and sheltering in place. Slowly, though, planes are returning to the skies as lockdown measures are relaxed.

COVID-19 Transmission on planes

It’s easy to step away from the person sneezing near you in the line at the bank. It’s less easy to do so when you’re strapped to your seat, in a metal canister thats zooming through the air at 30 000 feet.

Your chances of getting infected are directly linked to your proximity to an infected person, and the duration of your contact. This makes airplanes a great environment for viruses to jump from person to person. In fact, the World Health Organisation defines “contact” with others on the plane as being seated within two rows from each other.

But, as Amy McKeever writes for National Geographic, “people don’t just sit during flights, particularly ones lasting longer than a few hours. They visit the bathroom, stretch their legs, and grab items from the overhead bins”. During the 2003 coronavirus outbreak SARS, a passenger flying from Hong Kong to Beijing infected people who were sitting in other parts of the plane. In fact, 45% of the people infected had been seated outside of the 2-row boundary recommended by the WHO.

After this incident, public health researchers began to study the way viruses spread on planes by observing the behavioural patterns of passengers and crew members. One thing the studies identified, according to McKeever, was the safest place to sit.

“The passengers who were least likely to get up were in window seats,” she writes. “Only 43 percent moved around as opposed to 80 percent of people seated on the aisle”.

“Accordingly, window seat passengers had far fewer close encounters than people in other seats, averaging 12 contacts compared to the 58 and 64 respective contacts for passengers in middle and aisle seats.”

One takeaway, then, is that being seated at the window and keeping your butt planted in your seat decreases your chance of becoming infected by people walking through the aisle significantly.

This data is complicated, however, when one of the infected people happens to be a crew member. It’s also harder to determine the spread on larger planes with more than one aisle.

Planes in pandemics

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How airlines and airports are adapting

Airlines and airports are making a lot of promises when it comes to keeping passengers safe from coronavirus. These involve allowing fewer passengers to board each plane – and keep in mind that planes are designed in order to cram as many people in as possible – and mandating mask use on board. Some airlines are revising how much liquid we’re allowed to travel with in order to allow larger bottles of hand sanitiser on board.

While these certainly provide a level of comfort it seems that they’re not very consistently enforced. Not to mention the fact that they ignore the fact that passengers need to follow the rules in order for them to work.

Candice Dean, a UK citizen living in South Africa describing her experience on a repatriation flight back to London, said a lot of the journey felt unusual. There was no boarding pass, and, instead of meals on board, she was informed that they would only receive a light snack. She was also told that shops would not be selling refreshments at the airport.

“They also notified us that we could not drive to the airport, and had to meet at Cape Town Stadium for 6am (My flight was at 11am). Masks and gloves were mandatory for travel.”

“I arrived at Cape Town Stadium at 5:30 and we were queued with more than 2 meters between each other – in the parking basement. We filled in a health form and waited for over an hour before proceeding through to the next stage of checks. We got sanitised at each ‘step’ and were kept at a distance. Each of us had our temperatures checked, handed in our health forms and signed a paper. Then next stage – handed a “snack pack” and into another waiting room area. After an hour or so, they loaded us on to 12 buses – a seat apart from each other.”

Dean then explains that airport security was extremely tight – with sniffer dogs checking all the luggage – and that the entire atmosphere felt strange.

“There were 5 police officers and 2 sniffer dogs waiting for us – the entire terminal was closed except for our flight of roughly 300 passengers. The lights were all off. It was quiet. Such an odd thing to see when usually an airport is buzzing full of excitement.”

Despite the precautions taken at the airport, Dean felt that the social distancing measures became more relaxed once the 300 passengers began boarding the plane.

“It did not really make sense how they called us to board. Instead of carefully keeping us at a distance and calling us row by row, they pretty much called us all at the same time. Whilst boarding, all social distancing went completely out of the window. People were pushy and shoving and losing their manners or politeness. It defeated the whole point of it all.”

Dean explains that what she found most bizarre was the that, once on board, despite the fact that the cabin attendants were kitted in masks and gloves, nobody monitored the behaviour of the passengers: “What I found strange was that no one was monitored, whether we wore our masks or not … there were no sanitisation reminders or anything. It seemed to have changed – once on board, to each man to their own.”

“Coming out of the airport was completely normal and I am still extremely surprised to this day that no one tested us as we disembarked or contacted us thereafter to check on us or anything,” says Dean. “Compared to Cape Town, Heathrow was not closed to the public and family members were able to meet us at arrivals”.

We’re all human, and we can think of everything at once. People get irritated by their masks, and take them off or wear them improperly. They accidentally touch their faces. Or, in the worst case scenario, they simply think they’re exempt from the pandemic rules that govern our lives now.

Hanna Smothers, writing for Vice, believes that the changes to air travel rules will continue to change as more is learned about the virus.

“Six months ago, she writes, “the CDC believed checking temperatures before boarding would keep infected people off planes, until studies showed presymptomatic spread was a major factor in the rise of new cases, and monitoring temperatures took a backseat to mask-wearing and social distancing”. The truth is that if a foolproof method of making air travel safe was known, airports and airlines would already be doing them, and flying wouldn’t come with the risk that experts keep reminding us it does.

Something to consider before travelling

travelling in a pandemic 2

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

We’ve said before that right now, we all need to behave as if we, ourselves, are silent spreaders of this virus. That means behaving as if we’re putting every person we come into contact with at risk. The process of boarding a flight and travelling to another country or city, by its very nature, involves coming into contact with a number of people.

Smothers says that “despite safety precautions based on coronavirus research, it is still spreading around airports. The essential workers who remain in their jobs during the pandemic are the most at-risk for getting sick, which should be a humanitarian concern for people doing the traveling”.

The essential workers you’ll encounter at the airport are putting themselves and their families at risk to do their job. No matter where you are in the world, you should be considerate of this fact, and do what you can to not only mitigate risk for yourself, but also for them. In a country like South Africa, many of these workers are also from financially vulnerable households, and putting them at risk to go on holiday is incredibly selfish.

Precautions you can take when traveling by plane.

If you absolutely must travel, it’s worth considering whether you’re able to take multiple, shorter flights to reach your final destination. This may eliminate having to make bathroom trips – and therefore the amount of surfaces you’ll have to touch, and people you’ll have to squeeze past.

As we’ve already mentioned, it might be worth trying to get a window, rather than an aisle, seat. Once you’re in it, try to stay there for the duration of the flight.

Take hand wipes along with you and wipe down everything. This includes your passport. Kacey Ernst for TED suggests taking a small washcloth soaked in a bleach solution in a ziplock bag if you can’t get hold of wipes. “This will probably freak out airport security less than carrying a personal spray bottle, and viruses are not likely to grow on a cloth with a bleach solution. But remember: More bleach is not better and it can be unsafe. You need only one tablespoon in four cups of water to make an effective solution.”

Obviously, keep your mask on throughout the trip, and wash or sanitise your hands frequently.

air travel COVID-19

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The situation is undoubtedly going to develop and change as the virus spreads and as we learn more about it. The onus is on each of us to keep making responsible choices and act with kindness, throughout that process. We’re all extremely tired of coronavirus, but it’s not yet tired of us. So, while we’re all itching to start traveling in the new normal, we need to think carefully about when and how we do.

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