Now that the country is reopening, more people are thinking about booking airplane travel. But how safe is it? Germ expert Charles Gerba, PhD, tells what travelers need to know…
If the US rate of infection starts to rise again, then I advise against flying. If it continues to fall, these steps—in the terminal and on the plane—should help keep you safe. Keep in mind that although airlines say they’re deep cleaning, we really don’t know how effectively. Also, it takes only one infected passenger to introduce germs to a “clean” cabin.
Helpful: The shorter the flight, the safer, as we’ve learned from norovirus and influenza studies, and flying nonstop limits the number of people you’re exposed to.
Wear a mask on the plane and in the terminal. As you surely now know, being in close proximity to others is the key transmission risk, and a mask reduces exposure. Assume that anyone—even you—could be contagious. Bonus: Wearing a mask helps to keep you from touching your face.
Proper fit is extremely important for the most protection. It must cover your nose and mouth, from just under your eyes to the bottom of your chin. Having a beard impairs proper fit. If you don’t want to shave it, wear a neck gaiter, which covers from nose to neck.
Use hand sanitizer and/or wipes liberally. The TSA now allows passengers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer aboard. Or bring a three-ounce bottle of 60% or higher rubbing alcohol and paper towels.
While everyone is afraid of breathing in the virus, most planes have good air-filtration systems. The greatest transmission risk is from someone shedding the virus in water droplets that linger on surfaces that you then touch. Wipe down high-germ areas yourself, or use hand sanitizer after contact. Food trays and everything bathroom-related—the door latches (open and close), flush button, faucet handle—are the worst.
Put as much distance as possible between you and others. It’s impossible to truly socially distance on a plane. The greatest probability of picking up an infection comes from people in the seats nearest you in all directions—on either side and one row in front and behind. When possible, create a perimeter around yourself even if that means changing your seat. An empty middle seat is better than no distance, so avoid planes with only two seats per side.
What you don’t need to wipe: The virus doesn’t survive well on most surfaces, so it’s not necessary to wipe down purchases from airport shops or a soft suitcase after the flight. If you wipe down the tray, you don’t need to wipe down your things that touch it, such as a book or computer.