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Can you stay COVID safe when you fly?




Would you board a flight at this time? There are diehard travellers who would maybe on business or just because their pre-booked flight is still operating and they won’t get a refund.

Also Read: Constant quarantine changes are changing the way we book travel

Whatever the reason, the flying experience is very different from those heady pre-COVID days when the freedom to interact was taken for granted.

So just how do you stay safe? Here are some common-sense tips and a bit of myth-busting thrown in to take on board

How will you get to the airport? Car vs Train

Jumping on a train is convenient but there will be others on the train with you and surfaces that many hands will have touched. If it’s crowded it will be hard to social distance.

Getting there by car is safer (COVID-wise) especially if you are driving yourself. If you are being driven, keep the windows open and wear your mask. 

Airport safety

Airports are hubs catering to people from around the world with plenty of surfaces where COVID may be living. However, there are hygiene protocols in place. Everyone has to wear a mask anywhere at the airport and rigorous social distancing measures are in place. Betty Ianou travelled from Stansted Airport in July to Sweden with Ryanair. She said

I was anxious when I set off but when I got to the airport everyone was wearing their mask and socially distanced. Even the queue to check-in was orderly and relaxed.

Hand Luggage vs Checked-in Luggage

Travelling light with hand luggage only has its advantages. Apart from not having to mill around the carousel with others in close-knit proximity, it’s the only way you can be sure that you are the only person to handle your luggage.

Interestingly the Department for Transport (DfT) advises travellers to check-in their luggage to “speed up boarding and disembarking”. Yet Ryanair CEO Michael O Leary disagrees. He asserts that taking hand luggage means there will be fewer hands touching your bags – no baggage handlers. This advice comes at a cost as much of Ryanair’s income comes from checked-in luggage.

Going Through Security

Trays carry more respiratory viruses than public toilets.

There’s no avoiding security. And there’s no avoiding those security trays where you (and who know how many others) have to deposit laptops, phone, keys and whatever else happens to be in their pocket. A study from BMC Infectious Diseases undertaken in 2018 points out that trays carry more respiratory viruses than public toilets. During the process don’t touch your face and sanitise or wash your hands as soon as you can.

Staying Safe on a Flight

Airlines are determined to be COVID safe. They now disinfect planes between flights and masks are important, so important that airlines are booting flyers who refuse to wear them off their flights.

You can of course remove the mask to eat or drink and replace immediately after. You will be advised to stay seated and if you buy something on board you will be asked to use contactless payment. Not that there will be much in the way of refreshment as airlines have reduced their food inventory. You can of course bring your own.

Using the onboard toilet may prove a challenge as queues are not allowed. On Ryanair and easyjet you will have to ask permission to use the toilet. So – in an effort not to nanny you – go before you go. 

Where you sit may well determine your urge to move around the aircraft. According to the research team at Atlanta’s Emory University their study “behaviours, movements and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights” those passengers with a window seat mingle with others less than those passengers in other seats. Either way, you will be told to stay in your seat. 

Is Cabin Air Safe to Breathe?

There is good news which dispels the myth that cabin air easily transmits viruses from one passenger to another. Overall, the risk of catching the virus is pretty low thanks to advanced air filtrations systems. 

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for COVID-19, told BBC News:

“The one good thing about aeroplanes is that the ventilation system includes really powerful filters which means that in our view they are relatively safer. Given the excellent ventilation system on modern commercial aircraft and that the main method of transmission [of respiratory infections] is by direct contact and/or airborne droplet, most risk is isolated to those passengers sitting in the same row or that behind or in front of someone sick.”

This is echoed by expert Dr Julian Tang at the University of Leicester in the UK. Tang says:

“Overall, planes are probably safer than poorly ventilated pubs, where similar densities of people do not wear masks and talk a lot and loudly. The ventilation systems on planes are very effective in reducing the overall concentration of any airborne pathogen exhaled by passengers,”

There’s more reassurance from IATA (International Air Transport Association) whose research on the transmission of COVID on air transport seems to confirm that being on an aircraft is no riskier than being in any confined space. The modern cabin air system delivers around 50 per cent fresh air and 50 per cent filtered recirculated air. 

“Hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are effective at capturing greater than 99.9 per cent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air. Air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free.”

This means that someone with a sniffle elsewhere on the flight is unlikely to transmit this to you via the air you breathe. The riskiest moment would be face-to-face conversations (especially when masks are not worn) where air can be exchanged before take-off. This is true for any conversations before or after the flight.

Of course, it is not impossible to catch coronavirus on a plane, just unlikely and diminished by the vigilant wearing of masks and hand hygiene. So, if you have to fly, be safe and don’t panic.


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