Pandemic flying: “Separating fact from fiction in airplane safety.”


Apart from considerations about the personal health of my immediate family, my biggest COVID pandemic fear from Day One has been that my country will botch the response, with Americans awakening one morning to a new status as global epidemiological pariahs (you’d think being a worldwide political outlier would be sufficient).

And so we did, and now we are: US travelers ‘unlikely’ to be allowed into EU as bloc reopens, diplomats say.

Thanks, Trumphole.

Live in a superstitious country without brains, as we definitely do, and pay the consequences of not being able to glimpse civilization elsewhere now and then. It’s all I’ve ever asked, and now it’s gone, albeit temporarily.

When the time to fly away comes again, as it will, here are a few thoughts from Scott’s Cheap Flights about pandemic airways reality. I’m not afraid of flying, but would prefer being able to leave the plane once we arrive.

Advice From Scott: The myth of “recirculated air” on planes

Separating fact from fiction in airplane safety to answer the question: During a pandemic, just how risky is it to get on a plane?

👃 Myth #1: 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. 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.

✈️ Myth #2: Cabin air is “stale.”

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.

🤒 Myth #3: There’s no chance of getting sick on a plane.

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?

💺 Myth #4: Planes are 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 there’s only been 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.

😷 Fact #1: Masks are really important.

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 and American Airlines have announced new policies threatening to ban travelers who refuse to wear a mask from future flights.

To quote RCMelic: No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no fly.

🙃 Fact #2: Travel should be fun.

Even with airplane myths debunked, many people still aren’t comfortable flying right now, and that’s a decision I respect 100%. Vacations should be fun, not stressful. Paris and Palm Springs aren’t going anywhere.

None of this is to say everyone should hop on a plane tomorrow. It’s a personal decision. My hope is that knowing more about airplane safety will be reassuring as people begin assessing when they’ll feel safe and comfortable traveling again.