New research suggests that traveling by plane may be safer than visiting a grocery store, but travelers need to be aware of the risk.
How safe is it to travel by plane?
With the holiday season bearing down, that's the question many families across the country are asking themselves right now. As COVID-19 cases have surged in most states, public health officials have stressed that the safest way to enjoy the holidays () this year is at home with your household or virtually.
For those who do risk traveling right now, recent research has indicated that the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 on a plane is indeed quite low.
A recent report (/) prepared by faculty and scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the multi-layered approach airlines are taking to public safety amid the pandemic significantly reduces the risk of contracting the virus while on a plane.
The study, which was sponsored by industry trade group Airlines for America, found that the ventilation systems onboard flights keep air circulating and refreshed. The HEPA filters in these systems filter out over 99% of the particles that can spread COVID-19. Plus, all airlines require passengers and crew to wear facemasks while onboard and thoroughly disinfect high-touch areas of the aircraft, which researchers said also helped to reduce the risk from flying.
Read more:Airlines must take extreme precautions to keep passengers safe, experts tell Congress ()
This approach "reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission onboard aircraft below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out," the researchers wrote ().
Meanwhile, a separate study from U.S. Transportation Command () found that "the overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low on the type of aircraft the command contracts to move Department of Defense personnel and their families."
That test involved inflight, simulated inflight and on-the-ground experiments with mannequins positioned throughout the plane. Some mannequins had face masks, while others didn't. The study found that the air-filtration system on the plane circulated air so rapidly that aerosol particles were only detectable in the cabin for less than six minutes. In the average home, it would take 90 minutes to filter out these particles, the researchers noted.
Nevertheless, low risk does not mean risk-free. "You can't say no risk until COVID is behind us -- there is always some element of risk when we're still in the middle of the pandemic," Leonard Marcus, founding co-director of Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, said during a news conference discussing the results of the Harvard study.
Here are some questions travelers should be asking themselves and airlines to gauge whether or not they think it is safe to travel by plane right now.
Initially when the coronavirus pandemic emerged and millions of travelers across the globe stayed put for safety reasons, many airlines began announcing they would block out the middle seats to create more distance between unrelated travelers to keep people safe.
In recent months though, most airlines have abandoned this practice and have resumed booking all seats on flights. Currently, the last holdout is Delta Air Lines (DAL) -- the company's CEO has said that middle seats on Delta flights will remain blocked through in 2021.
However, new research suggests that keeping middle seats empty on flights doesn't necessarily make them safer. The Harvard study found that because the rapid airflow is directed downward, there is little risk of breathing in airborne particles expelled by someone sitting next to you on a plane.
"You cannot see any measurable difference in the risk with the adjacent seat being vacant versus where some infectious person may be seated," Jack McCarthy, president of Environmental Health and Engineering Inc, said during the Harvard study presentation.
Anyone who is worried about the possibility of sitting next to someone who is sick should contact their airline about rebooking to a less-full flight. Some airlines, including United, will notify passengers if a flight is fairly full so they can choose to change their reservation if they want.
The Harvard study noted that meal service represented an important source of risk while traveling by plane. While airlines require passengers to wear their facemasks, passengers can take them off briefly to eat or drink.
Most airlines have modified their food and beverage services to reduce travel within the cabin for safety reasons. JetBlue (JBLU) has temporarily suspended full beverage and snack service on all flights, only offering limited options. Frontier is not offering any in-flight food or beverage options currently besides bottled water on request to discourage mask removal, a spokeswoman said.
A passenger's safest bet would be to pack their own food, so they can ensure it hasn't been touched by others, or to avoid eating altogether. But on long-haul flights, that may not be feasible.
"That is a weak link in the system," said Edward Nardell, a professor at Harvard University. His advice: When others around you are eating, keep your mask on. And when you choose to eat, ensure others have their masks on.
Another weak link in terms of air travel right now is getting on and off the plane, the Harvard researchers argued. For starters, passengers have a tendency to crowd the gangway onto the plane when boarding, and often jump up to retrieve their stowed-away bags and get off the plane after it lands.
Some carriers have taken measures to mitigate those situations.
"We implemented a new boarding process and are boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process, minimizing crowding in the gate area and on the jet bridge and boarding from back to front of the plane," a spokeswoman for United Airlines (UAL) told MarketWatch.
A spokeswoman for Allegiant noted that the flight crew controls deplaning by spacing out announcements of which people are free to make their way off the plane to encourage social distancing. JetBlue, meanwhile, boards the flight from back to front to avoid having passengers pass one another.
When people aren't moving about the cabin, the plane's air filtration system pushes air through the cabin rapidly -- coming out from the top of the plane and circulating downward where it is sucked into a filter.
Read more:Cruises from the U.S. can begin sailing again -- but be ready for shorter voyages, multiple COVID tests and no more buffets ()
People standing in the aisle can disrupt that airflow and block the vents forcing air downward, allowing particles to stay in the air and therefore increase the risk of infection.
And airlines may not keep their air-filtration systems on during boarding or deplaning.
"We as individuals, have some control over what's going on there because we'll be able to restrain ourselves somewhat and not get naturally caught in the crush," McCarthy said. But passengers should also encourage other travelers to socially distance -- and may want to check with the flight crew to ensure they're enforcing the protocols.
The Harvard study and the Department of Defense study both indicated that the risks of contracting the coronavirus while on a plane are low -- but that doesn't take into account the risks of contracting the virus while traveling to and from the airport.
Research has shown that traveling via public transportation () can be safe, so long as you and other passengers are wearing face masks and social distancing when possible.
Riding in a taxi or ride-share, however, might be riskier, especially if the driver isn't wearing a mask or the vehicle is not well ventilated with circulating air. To reduce your risk, ride alone and consider lowering the windows to avoid sharing the same air as other passengers.
Obviously, wearing a face mask and social distancing are critical to staying safe while traveling, but travelers should come to the airport well prepared to reduce their chances of getting sick.
Most airlines allow travelers to use a digital ticket on their phone -- by avoiding the kiosks at check-in or handing a ticket over to a security agent, travelers can reduce the number of high-touch areas they come in contact with.
Officials have relaxed the restrictions on liquids in carry-ons to allow people to travel with larger bottles of hand sanitizer. Make sure you pack one, and use it often -- or better yet, wash your hands frequently.
-Jacob Passy; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 12, 2020 00:03 ET (05:03 GMT)
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