Nonessential travel is still not recommended in many countries, including the US, where the Centers for Disease Control warns against it.
Though it doesn’t recommend traveling, the CDC says that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”
Some experts agree and say that there are certain things you can do to minimize the risk of infection on flights.
Frequent handwashing, wiping down the tray table, wearing a mask, and having the vent above you blow air down can help reduce risk.
Sitting in the window seat can also somewhat reduce your risk of infection by having fewer people in close proximity than you would in other seats.
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Nonessential travel isn’t recommended in many places right now — including the US, where the Centers for Disease Control warns against it — but if you have to travel by plane, you might be wondering how to do so safely.
Insider spoke to four experts about how likely getting infected on a plane actually is, and it turns out that the risk of getting sick while flying is lower than you might think — especially if you take appropriate precautions, such as frequent handwashing, wearing a mask, and having vents blow air down.
One more thing you can do to reduce your risk of infection while flying is choosing the window seat.
“Because people are walking by you in the aisle seat, it’s shown in outbreaks and norovirus that people are more likely to get ill if they sit on the aisle because people are touching surfaces and walking by,” Charles Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona who has also studied germs on planes, said. “So based on norovirus outbreaks, the window seat is better.”
Howard Weiss, a biomathematician and professor in the School of Mathematics at Georgia Tech and an adjunct professor of biology and public health at Emory University who co-authored a study titled “Behaviors, movements, and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights,” agrees.
“What we found was under normal circumstances — again, we’re talking direct transmission of large droplet transmitted infectious diseases — if you sit in a window seat, you are more than a meter (3 feet) away from the aisle,” he said. “So if you believe in the one-meter cut-off for infectious droplets, then you’re going to have far fewer close proximity contacts. So yes, there’s some added benefit to sitting in a window seat. It’s modest, but it’s certainly a benefit.”
According to Paloma Beamer, associate professor of environmental health sciences at University of Arizona and president of the International Society of Exposure Science, having a wall next to you will essentially reduce the number of people within your 6-foot exposure radius by half, which is why she suggests selecting a window seat if possible.
Beamer said that while it depends on the airline and plane, she found that travelers in the middle seat of a standard plane can have up to 20 other passengers within 6 feet of them on a full flight.
However, she adds that 6 feet is really just a suggestion.
“Six feet 1 inch doesn’t make you safe, neither does 5 feet 10 inches make you not safe — it’s kind of a range. Some people are going to release a lot more virus when they’re sick than other people,” she said.
Essentially, your probability of getting infected depends on how close or far you are from an infected person. So, even though sitting in a window seat can help you keep your distance from more people, it’s still possible that you could get sick from being near an infected person.
“What our study showed was that if direct transmission, large droplet mediated infectious disease variance falls within a meter or two (3-6 feet), then unless you’re seated close to the infectious passenger […] you have quite a low probability of getting infected,” Weiss said.
While many flights are currently operating at low capacity, and some airlines are keeping their middle rows empty to make social distancing somewhat possible on flights, this likely won’t last. According to a press release from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), social-distancing measures can reduce planes’ maximum load factors to 62%, when most airlines need their planes to be 77% full to break even. Thus, the IATA anticipates fares rising by up to 54% in some places, though this could also mean that flights will simply get filled right back up as soon as there’s demand again. This notion is supported by the many reports of nearly full flights traversing the skies recently.
It’s worth reiterating that travel is not currently recommended in the US, but if you do choose to travel, it’s best to check each state’s health and travel advisories, and the CDC’s travel recommendations by country.
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