What to Expect When Flying for the Holidays in a Pandemic


A flight attendant distributing masks out to passengers. Mask-wearing is the first significant step to safety when flying with COVID. (Photo courtesy via Getty Images)

As people excitedly prepare for the holiday season, traveling to join family and friends this year looks a lot different with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Gathering with others — probably the most prevalent holiday tradition — has never required so much meticulous thought. Health experts say the easiest and most effective way to stay safe is to stay home. But if you are planning to fly, there are a few things you should know. 

Airports are less crowded right now, but they will be more crowded with the holiday season. In preparation, every airport has stepped up sanitation and hygiene protocols. Hand sanitizer is readily available in many places. 

Speaking for the Raleigh-Durham Airport, they now require a face mask that tucks under the chin. So sadly, no more fake beard, or crazy neck cover mask. Also, boarding areas have blocked off seats to ensure six feet of distance. 

Of course, some airports are doing better than others, but for the most part, all have taken some initiative for keeping travelers safe in the airport. There can not be guaranteed safety, and conditions are always changing, so make sure to bring your own Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and always social distance.  

“We expect that the week of Thanksgiving is actually going to be the busiest week at United Airlines since the onset of the pandemic,” said Josh Earnest, United Airlines senior vice president.

More than 836,000 people passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on Nov. 9 — almost 10 times more than on Apr. 14, when they recorded the lowest number of people during the pandemic. 

According to airlines, it is safe to fly right now. 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,” said a study done by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

All airlines require passengers and crew to wear face masks while on board. Unless actively eating or drinking, passengers must wear PPE.  

Some airlines have eliminated food services entirely, and some have switched to handing out paper or plastic bags containing sanitizing wipes, a small bottle of water, and a bag of cookies or pretzels. For example, Southwest Airlines hands out a bag of trail mix and water.

A separate study from the 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.”

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. The researchers noted in the average home, it would take 90 minutes to filter out these particles.

As of right now, the middle seat is not an option unless sitting next to someone of your party. However, true social distancing is very hard without a very minimal capacity, and some airlines are going to reopen the middle seat. 

These airlines that have resumed selling the middle seat have also committed to informing travelers when their flights are reaching capacity. This allows travelers who want a less crowded flight to rebook. 

Southwest shared via Twitter they will be unblocking the middle seat on November 30th. They cite many studies showing that the combination of the use of masks and airplane ventilation systems reduces the risk of airborne infection to only 1%. 

International Air Transport Assn. reported that just 44 cases of COVID-19 transmission — out of almost 1.2 billion passengers who have traveled since the beginning of 2020 — linked to flying. 

After passengers leave the plane, the flight crew thoroughly disinfects high-touch areas of the aircraft, which researchers have said also helps reduce the risk of catching COVID from flying. 

Nevertheless, low risk does not mean risk-free. Although traveling by plane is safer than many would expect, you should still take the precautions of wearing a face mask, having hand sanitizer, washing your hands, and social distancing. 



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