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What is the Risk of Catching COVID-19 While Flying? How Can You Mitigate It?

If you’re thinking of flying, you’re probably wondering if it’s worth the risk of catching COVID-19. But do you know just how much of a risk it is? 

As airline pilots, we’re constantly analyzing risk and ways to mitigate it. In fact, that’s the principal element of our job – threat and error management, or TEM.

In the last week, we’ve consistently seen over a million passengers flying on a daily basis. Whether it’s to see family or travel for essential reasons, each passenger made an active decision to assume the risk of traveling.

So, let’s see just how much of a risk you are taking when you decide to fly, whether it’s for love or simply for tourism.

Just don’t be the asshole that travels with symptoms. No excuses.

In This Article:

Are Airplanes Safe During COVID-19?

We’ve seen and witnessed this over and over again: airplanes are safe and strongly reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.

Study after study has revealed that your chances of catching COVID-19 on an airplane are basically zero. 

So why then, do we read stories about people catching COVID-19 while flying?

The risk is reduced if you open your air vents.
Flying during these times may seem scary, but what really is the risk?

Consider that these events all happened back in March, before airlines required face masks. The passengers responsible for spreading COVID-19 on these flights were symptomatic – probably coughing, easily spreading COVID-19 around. Without face masks, it’s no wonder they were able to spread COVID-19 on these two long haul flights in March.

Nearly every country these days requires a negative PCR test prior to entry. This means that the chances of someone being infected on your flight are extremely slim. If someone slips through the cracks, the obligatory face masks combined with constantly refreshed airflow reduce the risk to near-zero, according to a Harvard study.

In fact, one man who was positive for COVID-19 flew 15 hours from China to Canada on a full flight, and nobody around him was infected. He wore a face mask.

A recent DoD study shows that in order to be infected, you would have to be seated next to someone who coughed continuously for over 50 hours. Good luck with that.

What’s the Actual Risk of Catching COVID-19 While Flying? What if Someone Refuses to Wear a Mask?

We all know people that think they know better than the epidemiologists and refuse to wear face masks. Fortunately, the airlines don’t play around. For example, Delta has reportedly banned over 700 passengers who refuse to wear masks. Most of these instances happen before even leaving the gate, but airlines WILL turn around to remove passengers who refuse to comply.

Let’s look at the real risk of flying. According to IATA, “Since the beginning of 2020, 1.2 billion passengers have traveled while there have been fewer than 100 documented cases of COVID-19 reported in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey (inclusive of confirmed, probable and potential cases). That’s one case for every 27 million travelers.”

You have fifty times more chance of being struck by lightning.

Like everything in life, there is a risk. It’s just that the risk of catching COVID-19 while flying is about as low as any risk in life gets.

How Does the Risk of Catching COVID-19 While Flying Compare to Other Normal Activities?

You may consider going to the grocery store a normal activity but have you considered the risk?

On a normal grocery store visit, how many people are you in close proximity with by the time you leave? Chances are it’s over 100 people. 

Do you know how often is the air renewed in a grocery store? While it’s once every 2 to 3 minutes in an airplane, it’s once every 20 to 30 minutes in grocery stores. That leaves a lot of time for COVID-19 to circulate freely. 

If you're at a bar, you're taking WAYYY too much risk!
Bars: the best place to catch COVID-19. Not a risk worth taking!

Indoor restaurants are cesspools of COVID-19. Some studies have shown COVID-19 spreading to tables 20 feet away from an infected person. The (poor) air circulation in restaurants is very conducive to the spread of COVID-19. 

If you engage in any of these activities, or see anyone outside of your normal ‘bubble’ of people without wearing face masks at any time, you’re taking enormously higher risk than you would be by flying. 

Travel is Non-essential. Why Should I Take Any Risk?

Stop and consider the other side.

The tourism industry, particularly abroad, has been devastated by COVID-19. 

According to the UN World Tourism Organization, tourism provides about 1 in 10 jobs around the world. As a result, 100 to 120 million jobs are at risk due to COVID-19. “Women, who make up 54% of the tourism workforce, youth and workers in the informal economy are among the most at-risk categories.”

These millions of people, in both developed and developing countries, are now without work, jobs, or income of any sort. We’re not all lucky enough to live in countries where we get to bicker about how much money individuals will receive from a stimulus bill. 

For many, $600 is more than they’ll make this whole year. 

The tourism industry has been hammered.

According to the UN, as many as 86 million additional children will go hungry in response to a lack of tourism. 

This isn’t an excuse to travel irresponsibly. Quite the opposite, there are many ways to travel safely and responsibly, including getting tested and respecting local health regulations. Even while abroad, you can continue to reduce the risk for yourself and for others.

What About the Risk of Bringing COVID-19 With Me?

Going back to my skills in risk mitigation as an airline pilot, I will say: do all you can to avoid bringing COVID-19 to developing countries. And that involves volunteering to get tested. 

Most countries require a negative RT-PCR test result to enter, but if they don’t, do it anyways! If possible, stick to PCR tests over rapid/antigen tests, as they’re more accurate. 

The Hawaii tourism board recently released post-travel data showing that with their new travel program (requiring a PCR test prior to travel), only 10 out of 11,000 (0.09%) visitors were discovered to be infected a week after arrival. It works.

This means that, of the travelers arriving in most countries, the number infected will be lower than that of the general population. That’s called risk mitigation. Not zero risk, but minimal risk.

Though it may be difficult, consider getting testing on day 4 or 5 of your travels. That will catch the 0.09% of people who slip through the cracks, and reduces your risk to basically zero. Testing is becoming increasingly easy to find all around the world! 

Mitigate the Risk Even Further: Choose the Right Airline.

Every airline is jumping through hoops trying to show you how safe and clean their airplanes are, but only one airline stands out as the safest right now: Delta Air Lines

Reduce your risk of catching of COVID-19: Fly Delta!
Delta has literally created a brand new Global Cleanliness Division – new VP and all!

They’re the last remaining airline to continue to block middle seats AND deep-disinfect each airplane between each flight. They’ve meticulously worked on every single detail of the journey, from start-to-finish. No other airline compares. 

Threat and Mitigation

Of course, there’s more to flying than… well, flying. From the time you leave your home, you could be exposing yourself.

Different kinds of travel mean different risks.
From the CDC Website: all kinds of travel bring risks. It’s up to you to determine risk vs benefit.

We already know that washing your hands frequently, for 20 seconds at a time, and avoiding touching your face are vital to reducing your risk.

Let’s look at this the same way pilots do before every flight: what are the threats and how can we mitigate them?

Threat: Crowded lines at check-in

Airports, the TSA, and some airlines have gone to great lengths to minimize any risk you could encounter during your entire journey. A couple extra easy steps can mitigate your risk of catching COVID-19 while flying even further.

Mitigation:

  • Check in online so you can head straight to security.
    • Bring only a carryon if you can.
  • If you need to check in a bag, you can still check in online. This will allow you to bypass the longer check-in lines and head straight to baggage drop.
    • Some airports offer touchless check-in. Your baggage tags will print automatically upon scanning your boarding pass.
  • Practice social distancing in lines.
  • Airlines use plexiglass at all check-in counters.
  • Most airports have sterilizing robots that use UV light to disinfect surfaces.

Threat: Going through TSA security.

There’s no doubt that going through security is a risk point. Luckily, the TSA (in order to protect not only you, but themselves) has gone surprisingly far in making the process cleaner and more efficient.

Airports these days are very quiet, further reducing the risk of catching COVID-19 while flying
Airports are as quiet as they’ve been for decades, making the travel journey easier than ever.

Mitigation:

  • Minimize the time you spend going through security.
    • No loose change, no shoes with laces, no belts, take off and store your jacket in advance.
    • I usually place my cell phone and wallet in the pockets of my jacket before placing it in the bin – minimizing contact surfaces.
    • Have your laptop and carry-on toiletries ready.
  • Enroll in TSA PreCheck.
    • Digital ID, a new system developed for TSA PreCheck members, allows you to avoid checking in with a TSA agent at security.
    • You won’t have to take off your shoes, belt, or laptop, reducing touch points and time spent through security.
  • Use hand sanitizer after passing through security and/or go to the restroom to wash your hands
    • It’s available in 99% of airports, but even if not, the TSA is allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags until further notice.
    • Carrying alcohol wipes is a great idea to wipe down your suitcase and other items after going through security.
  • New TSA cleaning procedures reduce the risk of COVID-19 at security.
  • Choose to fly between airports accredited by the ACI Airport Health Accreditation Program.
    • These airports meet higher standards for health and cleanliness.

Threat: Boarding

The classic picture I have in my head when I think of boarding is a crowded, hot (or freezing cold) jetway. Some airlines have changed their procedures so that you won’t have to face these issues anymore.

Mitigation:

  • In the jetway
    • Board last, allowing the jetway to empty before heading down. Just don’t miss your flight!
    • Fly with an airline that only boards 10 people at a time, such as Delta.
    • Most airlines have improved airflow/air conditioning systems in jetways.
  • Avoid crowded areas.
    • You can download the airline’s app and get push notifications when boarding begins. This will allow you to remain in empty areas of the airport as long as possible.

Threat: Your Seat

Even though I know the air circulation of airliners will protect me, and study-after-study shows that the risk is minimal even on a full flight, one fear I have is being seated next to someone super irresponsible who has decided to fly despite having symptoms.

That’s why I only fly on Delta if I have the choice – they’re the last US airline that will still be blocking middle seats beyond this month. Combined with the proven air circulation on airplanes, I feel that blocking the middle seat strongly mitigates any remaining risk.

Delta's new A220. More space, less risk of catching COVID-19 while flying.
Delta’s new A220, a brilliant design with the most space in economy of any airplane in their fleet.

If traveling internationally, even though it’s a hassle, I purposely pick destinations that require a negative PCR test result to enter. This is just another barrier to people flying sick.

Mitigation:

  • Fly with an airline that blocks middle seats.
  • Purchase an upgraded ticket – they tend to be the last to fill up, especially emergency-exit row seats.
  • Disinfect your seat and its surroundings using a 70+% alcohol wipe or other approved disinfectant.
  • Book a flight that isn’t as full – most airlines are allowing free changes if you find yourself on a full flight.
  • Wear an approved N95 or KN95 mask, make sure it seals well, and minimize time out of your seat – it’s the safest place in terms of air circulation.
  • Open your air vent (after disinfecting it).

Threat: Crowding During Deplaning

It always seem like everyone is in a rush to get off the plane – even before it’s arrived at the gate! Frequent travelers are well aware that getting up early makes no difference to your time spent deplaning, but some leisure travelers are not.

Airlines now have procedures to stop this from happening – at least while COVID-19 is still a household name.

Mitigation:

  • Every airline I’ve flown this year allows only one row of passengers to get up at a line, reducing this risk.
  • If you find yourself in a situation where this isn’t the case, wait until there’s enough room, and move to a window seat. From there, you can decide the best time to deplane with social distancing in mind.

Threat: Long Lines in Customs

If you’re traveling internationally, you will have to pass through customs. There are a couple things you can do to make this process much quicker and enjoyable (I guess).

Mitigation:

  • Read about the ten ways I get through customs as quickly as possible.
  • Enroll in Global Entry.
    • I traveled internationally eight times in 2020, and never had to wait to use Global Entry.
  • Download the Flightradar24 app, look at arrivals, and pick a flight that arrives outside of peak international arrivals.
  • Have your passport ready, and make sure to have all documents (including PCR test results and country-specific health forms) ready and in-hand.

Threat: Post-Flight

You’re probably in a rush to leave the airport. Good. Just stay smart, and continue avoiding risks.

Escalators or stairs?
Escalator or stairs? In general, the stairs will allow you to get ahead of 15-30 people on your way up!

Mitigation:

  • Track your bag via your airline’s app and avoid crowded baggage claim areas until your bag is deposited onto the luggage belt.
  • Order your uber/lyft/taxi/private transportation ahead of time.
  • Even if it’s cold, wait outside. It’s proven that there’s no better air circulation than outside – except maybe in an airplane!
  • Participate in voluntary contact tracing (available when you fly internationally on Delta).
    • Though the chances are extremely low, it would be nice to know if you flew with someone who was sick and didn’t know. Delta has started a CDC-approved contact tracing program for all of its international flights – the first airline to start such an initiative.

Read more:

Where you can travel safely without having a long quarantine period.

How to transit through Europe during COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The best – and worst – face masks you can buy before flying.

Keep Exploring the World

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