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Traveling in a pandemic is not something to be taken lightly. It takes extra planning, extra PPE and extra precautions, especially if the trip you’re planning will include visits to those people you love but haven’t been able to see because of the coronavirus. While road trips are king in 2021, sometimes a plane is the way to go. Here, we answer the burning question: Is it safe to fly now, in a Covid-19 world?
Updated February 2021
Since June, I have flown three times:
- One round trip 4–hour flight to San Antonio on American Airlines for a short vacation with my husband that included a visit with a dear friend.
- Two one-way 2-hour flights on JetBlue and United Airlines to see family in Kentucky, including my dad who has a chronic respiratory illness that puts him at greater risk for Covid-19.
While I road trip to Kentucky at least twice a year, I chose to fly in 2020. I was traveling to help my aunt move. She had 30 years of stuff to sort through and I needed a bigger vehicle. Chevrolet offered to loan me a 2020 Silverado pickup truck for the week. We filled it over and over again for trips to Goodwill and the dump.
Advanced Planning Required
Planning travel several months in advance is not my usual MO. Three to four weeks is usually enough time for me to snag a good flight price and flight time. But getting the right flight at the right price is just one, very small, piece of the travel puzzle in 2020.
Here are all of the steps I took to make flying as safe as it can be in a pandemic, with tips to consider if you are planning holiday travel to visit the loved ones you haven’t seen in such a long time.
Should I Fly or Drive?
All of my mid-pandemic travel has been carefully thought out. It requires many frank discussions with the people I plan to visit and we all have to weigh the costs and benefits.
While I have some concerns about contracting Covid-19 myself, I am basically healthy and not immune-compromised. Still, I understand that the virus is unpredictable. No one is totally immune and symptoms and outcomes vary.
However, I am more concerned about being an asymptomatic virus spreader. My dad and other members of my family — both those I travel to visit and those I return home to — have health issues. I would not want to risk their health, no matter how much I want to see them and they want to see me.
What Will You Do When You Arrive?
Consider the trip to San Antonio. My husband was headed there on business and we wanted to turn the trip into a birthday weekend. We would be staying downtown so that we could walk to everything. The Hotel Contessa is an all-suites hotel right on the Riverwalk that wraps around the city. The hotel’s Covid cleaning protocols were above standard and we felt comfortable during our stay. They had social distancing rules in place, hand sanitizer everywhere and the staff wore masks.
We spent our time walking the Riverwalk and eating at outdoor restaurants so I initially thought there would be fewer coronavirus concerns. But then we priced my flight and found out we could save $200 if I flew into Austin and rented a car to drive 90ish to meet him in San Antonio.
Bonus points: Flying to Austin meant I could see my friend. But her elderly parents were planning a visit the next week. The result: we air-hugged rather than bear hugged and met at a restaurant where we could sit outside.
Special Pandemic Travel Concerns
The top of this list is quarantine rules, which can be very complicated, confusing and, sometimes, odd.
I live in Connecticut and I was traveling to Texas and Kentucky. Each state has its own quarantine rules for incoming visitors and residents returning home.
This took several days and phone calls to research. I started online, with the CT travel advisory page and called the health department to confirm my understanding of the rules.
San Antonio was a hot zone and neither my husband nor I wanted to stay home for two weeks after the trip if there were other options.
Which Coronavirus Test to Get?
For my first trip to Kentucky, I took a rapid Covid-19 test upon arrival that showed I was negative for the virus. That reassured my Kentucky relatives, but a negative rapid test result is not sufficient for Connecticut. My state requires a negative result from a PCR test — the one that takes several days to return a result — within 3 days of arrival.
The nose swab is the same for either test, although the technique used by the person administering the swab has varied at the testing stations I have been to – some do a quick swab, others swabbed each nostril 2 times (way up into the nostril- ouch!) and one had me blow my nose before she swabbed. The main difference between the rapid test and the PCR test is the PCR sample is sent to a third party lab and a rapid test is done on premises. The PCR process is considered to be more reliable.
The kicker is that Connecticut will accept the results of a PCR test taken BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE HOT ZONE. In other words, we could get a PCR test before we left Texas and as long we got the results within 3 days of our arrival home, and if they were negative, we would not need to quarantine.
That was a shocker. It makes no sense to me that a flight home AFTER getting a PCR test would not be considered a risk.
Still, we got the test in Texas (the results were negative), but also got rapid tests after we got home because my mother-in-law’s health is compromised.
How is Air Travel Different Now?
Getting to the Airport
Tip #1: Leave for the airport earlier than you normally would.
This has nothing to do with traffic jams and everything to do with confusion at the airport. But more on that in a minute.
First, the trip itself. It’s not easy or cheap to get to any of the New York area airports (JFK, Laguardia, Newark) from my house in Connecticut. Amtrak is the best option for getting to Newark, but the timing has to be just right. Public transportation takes hours and car services run $100-$125 one way. And, in a coronavirus world, using public transit or rideshare services seems like an unnecessary risk if you have other options.
Years ago, we established a relationship with a driver who has kept his prices reasonable and his sanitization standards high. He arrived for our pick up with his face mask on, and we rode with him, our face coverings on. His car was spotless as usual and he has stepped up his cleaning procedures between customers.
Airline Check In
Tip #2: Do as much as you can touch-free.
That includes checking in online, via your phone or the computer and printing your own boarding pass so you don’t have to talk with the airline agent or use those dirty touchscreens at the airport.
This wasn’t a change for me. I haven’t used a paper ticket since I figured out how to download an app to my phone.
Getting Through Security at the Airport
Tip #3: Limit your exposure to those TSA bins as much as possible.
The TSA the security line at JFK was a mess. Pre-check was closed and the ropes that were supposed to help us file through to the screening area was confusing. Ropes were unhinged so we never knew exactly which way to turn, and security agents were urging us along at a fast clip.
The TSA agent told me to show my boarding pass with the pre-check notification to the security officer so that I could keep my shoes on just as I would if the pre-check lines were open. Still, we had to remove our laptops from our bags. I had to do this multiple times as the security agents have no process for communicating with each other. It was stressful, took way longer than I expected and exposed my laptop to screening bins waaaaay more than I liked.
My husband emptied his pockets of his change and cell phone and tucked them into his carryon bag rather that placing them in a TSA tray like he normally would.
I certainly didn’t see anyone disinfecting those bins!
TravelingMom Tip: Pack a few Clorox wipes into your carryon and use them to wipe down anything that went into a TSA bin, then wash your hands thoroughly.
Staying Safe at the Airport Gate
Tip #4: You don’t have to sit at your assigned gate.
Just because your flight is leaving from Gate 10 doesn’t mean you have to find a seat at the crowded gate. Feel free to walk down to Gate 12 or even further if you can find a safe, socially distanced place to sit and wait. Just keep an eye on the time and send someone to walk past the gate as it gets closer to takeoff time so you don’t miss your flight!
I saw people using Clorox wipes or some other disinfectant to wipe down the armrests of the seats at the gate. Given how icky some of those seats are, that seems like a it might be a good thing to do even when we aren’t in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.
Is Flying Safe Now? Safety once you are onboard.
Tip #5: Disinfect your piece of the plane.
The American Airlines flight from NY to San Antonio was 90% full and middle seats were used, so social distancing was not possible on the plane. Middle seats on JetBlue are open unless passengers are traveling together. (Southwest and Delta airlines also still are keeping middle seats empty.)
I believed the crew when they announced that the plane had been cleaned and disinfected according to CDC guidelines, including the tray tables and lavatories. But I did see fellow passengers using Clorox wipes to clean the germiest spots on the plane. And I was careful to ask the passenger next to me if it was OK for me to place my jacket in the empty middle seat.
Wear Your Mask (or Suffer the Consequences)
The flight attendants on American and JetBlue made numerous announcements before and during the flight that everyone must wear masks that cover both the nose AND mouth. And they backed it up with a promise: Refusal to wear a face covering properly could result in never being allow to fly that airline ever again. Or maybe never being allowed to fly again, period.
Finally, don’t expect the flight attendants to travel up and down the aisles with a food and beverage cart. On my American Airlines flight from New York to Austin, flight attendants handed us a zip-locked baggie with a small water bottle, granola bar, sanitizing wipes and napkin as we boarded the flight. On JetBlue, they walked down the aisle after takeoff handing out baggies with water, granola bar and Cheez-Its.
Is Cabin Air Safe?
This is the big concern — would the cabin airflow carry the virus throughout the crowded flight?
Not according to the International Air Transport Association. It calls air travel “one of the safest travel alternatives” in a Covid-19 world.
Certainly, fears about the quality of cabin air are not new. But the carriers say there is a very low risk of catching an infectious disease on a flight, thanks to upgraded air filtration systems. There are hospital grade HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that remove virtually all of the virus. And, they say, the cabin air is completely changed 20 to 30 times per hour with recirculation systems that blend some fresh air with up to 50 percent recycled of cabin air that pass through HEPA filters.
JetBlue even created a video about how it all works:
Is Flying Safe Now According to the CDC?
While a recent Harvard study found that flying can be safer than going to the grocery store, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading Covid-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”
So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are ways the agency recommends for reducing your exposure to the virus:
- Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered when in public settings, including on public transportation and in transportation hubs such as airports and stations. It doesn’t have to be a hospital quality N95 mask. A double-thickness cloth face covering works fine.
- Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about 2 arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
- Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
- Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
In addition, you can limit your exposure during a flight by:
- choosing the right seat. A window seat keeps you more socially distanced from the people walking up and down the aisle.
- turning the air vent on full blast. The air blowing directly on you can help keep the germs away. Just remember to bring a warm wrap. The air conditioned air coming out of those vents can be really cold! (Bonus points for wearing a mask — it helps keep you warm.)
After the Flight
After deplaning at JFK, we were required to fill out a health form. The questionnaire asked where we were staying and whether we had Covid symptoms. After the San Antonio trip, my husband and I both received a call to confirm the information on the document. Turns out that the person who entered the info entered it incorrectly so it appeared as though we were visiting CT when we actually live there.
As soon as we received our PCR test results, we emailed them to the CT Department of Health which followed up with a phone call a couple of days later to confirm whether we had symptoms.
The Bottom Line: You Do You
Flying feels very safe to me. For both airlines, crew members are alert and deliberate but also conscientious of passenger comfort and anxiety. While they did not walk the aisles, they were quick to respond to a request.
My advice? You do you. If it makes you feel better to wipe down everything you touch and wear gloves for the entire flight, that is totally acceptable. If you have a seat “sleeve,” use it. Eating and drinking are up to you.
What is not acceptable is rude behavior. Kindly ask for what you need, whether you are speaking to a flight attendant or another passenger. People are uptight and unsure. A kind word works wonders — and not just during a pandemic.