Air travel looks a little different during a global pandemic. Whether you’re traveling out of necessity or for leisure, here’s what you need to know about fresh air on planes, how airlines have adapted, and what precautions you should take to increase safety for you and your fellow travelers.
It’s a myth that there’s no fresh air on airplanes.
When you’re in an airplane at 30,000 feet, many people assume there’s no fresh air. It’s an understandable thought, but it’s not true! Airplanes aren’t hermetically sealed environments. During a flight, fresh air from outside the plane is being continuously circulated into the cabin through complex vents in the engines.
In addition to bringing in fresh air from the outside, planes have hospital-grade air filters to purify the air onboard. These High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters cycle the air every few minutes, capturing 99.97% of airborne particles. Because of these onboard filters, researchers have found that airplane air is as clean or cleaner than the air in offices, schools, and other indoor settings.
While the odds that you’ll get sick on a flight are low, they aren’t zero.
Though fresh air and filters help, you’ll still be sharing an indoor space with quite a few people for an extended period of time. If a sick person sitting next to you coughs, fresh air and HEPA filters aren’t great armor. Planes, like most places, will never be 100% safe.
Because the risk of infection on a plane isn’t zero, precautions are prudent. Bring hand sanitizer (TSA is allowing up to 12oz in your carry-on) and disinfectant wipes for your seat armrests and table. Sure, the airlines are wiping them down already, but what’s the harm in wiping twice?
However, places aren’t superspreaders. Dr. Joseph Allen, a Harvard professor and leading infectious disease expert who has studied infectious disease and airplanes for years, wrote recently:
“Billions of people travel by plane every year. [...] If planes made you sick, we would expect to see millions of people sick every year attributable to flights. We haven’t seen it because it’s just not happening.”
Indeed, millions of people have flown since the coronavirus pandemic began, and as of June there was only one documented case where someone transmitted covid-19 to two or more other passengers.
It’s telling that 2/3 of epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times said they’d be comfortable getting on a plane in the next 12 months.
No mask, no fly
Most airlines now require masks to reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus even further.
Per Dr. Allen, a 2008 study found that wearing masks on an airplane "reduced the incidence of infection another 10-fold.” Though nowadays almost all airlines require masks to board, some have been lax about enforcement during the actual flight. Thankfully, that’s starting to change; United, Delta, and American Airlines have announced new policies threatening to ban travelers who refuse to wear a mask from future flights, and American, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, and Alaska will no longer allow exemptions for medical reasons.
Social distancing measures vary by airline.
While many airlines initially promised they’d keep middle seats empty, some have since reversed course and resumed filling flights to capacity.
Southwest, Alaska, and Delta will leave middle seats (or aisle seats when there’s only two seats per row) empty through at least September 30, and JetBlue will do the same through September 8. Hawaiian is also currently blocking middle seats.
United and American are not blocking middle seats but will notify travelers if their flight is expected to be full, and will allow them to change to another flight at no cost.
Here are links to the safety policies on major US airlines:
Boarding, deplaning, in-flight service, and time in the airport will all be different.
Most airports have very limited services available—don’t plan on leaving much time for shopping or dining before your flight as many shops and restaurants are not open.
Some airlines have revamped their boarding procedures. Rather than boarding by zone, passengers in the back of the airplane board first. When it’s time to deplane, some airlines are asking passengers to stand up five rows at a time, and remain seated until their row is called.
In flight, you can expect limited service as well. Many airlines are trying to limit interaction between passengers and crew by reducing meal service—rather than coming down the aisle with the beverage cart, flight attendants hand out individually wrapped snack packs that include items like a cookie, bottle of water, and sanitizing wipe.