Covid: How to sanitise and stay safe while flying

Extra vigilance in the fight against Covid-19

Qin Xie,Joanna Whitehead,Helen Coffey
Wednesday 15 September 2021 17:00 BST
Airlines have stepped up their routine for disinfecting planes
Airlines have stepped up their routine for disinfecting planes (AFP)

With lockdown restrictions lifted throughout the UK, and the resumption of international travel on 17 May, many British travellers are tentatively considering the prospect of foreign holidays.

Travel is now operating under the government’s traffic-light system, which categorises countries based on Covid infection rates and perceived risk.

As more people find themselves leaving on a jet-plane for pastures new, they may find it’s a very different experience compared to pre-Covid times, however.

But if you want to be extra vigilant, there are precautions you can take yourself.

What’s the likelihood of catching coronavirus on a plane?

Research conducted by the Georgia Department of Health and Mayo Clinic in conjunction with Delta airlines states that the risk of exposure to Covid-19 on a flight where every passenger has tested negative is less than 0.1 per cent.

The new peer-reviewed study published in September used data from nearly 10,000 air travellers on Delta’s Covid-tested flight corridors between New York’s JFK, Atlanta and Italy’s Fiumicino airports to conclude that a single molecular test performed within 72 hours of departure could significantly decrease the rate of people infected onboard a commercial aircraft.

Dr Henry Ting, Delta’s chief health officer, said: “When you couple the extremely low infection rate on board a Covid-19-tested flight with the layers of protection on board including mandatory masking and hospital-grade air filtration, the risk of transmission is less than one in one million between the United States and the United Kingdom, for example.

“These numbers will improve further as vaccination rates increase and new cases decrease worldwide,” he added.

Many travellers have the misconception that they are more likely to get ill after a flight because they presume the “same air”, carrying every passenger’s sniffle, sneeze or cough, is getting recycled and pumped around the aircraft.

In fact, modern jets have very advanced air filtration systems, making transmission via the air you breathe onboard extremely unlikely.

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for Covid-19, previously said that air travel is “relatively safe” when it comes to the spread of coronavirus.

“The one good thing about aeroplanes is that the ventilation system includes really powerful filters which means that in our view they are relatively safer,” he told BBC News.

“Given the excellent ventilation system on modern commercial aircraft and that the main method of transmission [of respiratory infections] is by direct contact and/or airborne droplet, most risk is isolated to those passengers sitting in the same row or that behind or in front of someone sick,” Dr David E Farnie, medical director of Global Response Centre for MedAire Worldwide, told The Independent.

How long does coronavirus stay on surfaces?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it’s not clear how long this version of coronavirus, known as Covid-19, survives on surfaces.

However, it appears to be behaving like other coronaviruses, which means it could survive anywhere between a few hours to several days.

Coronavirus is an airborne disease, however, so the greatest risk of contracting the virus is by being in close contact with an infected person, rather than touching surfaces.

Is there anything I can do to disinfect my plane seat?

While airlines have significantly stepped up their cleaning routine since the coronavirus outbreak, some passengers may opt for a more thorough approach.

If you want to be extra careful, it’s worth bringing your own disinfectant wipes onboard with you – just make sure coronavirus is listed on the pack.

You will need to use the wipes on all the non-porous surfaces that your hands will come into contact with, such as the arm rest and tray table. Don’t forget the shades and walls if you’re sitting by the window – one of the best options for avoiding nasty bugs.

Make sure you read the instructions on your wipes as well, as in some cases, the surface you’re disinfecting will need to stay wet for several minutes while it gets to work.

The most effective measure, though, is to wear a face mask.

Is it worth wearing gloves?

Gloves are unlikely to protect you on a flight.

A spokesperson for PHE told The Independent: “PHE is not recommending the use of gloves as a protective measure against Covid-19 for the general public.

“People concerned about the transmission of infectious diseases should prioritise good personal, respiratory and hand hygiene.”

Is there anything else I can do to stay safe while onboard?

If you’re flying short-haul, going to the toilet just before boarding could help eliminate the need to go while on the aircraft, meaning less movement around the cabin and less chance of coming into contact with a coronavirus carrier.

This may seem like hair splitting, but studies have shown that those who move a lot around the cabin are more likely to pick up a bug.

In a 2018 study tracking the “behaviours, movements and transmission of droplet-mediated respiratory diseases during transcontinental airline flights”, a research team led by Atlanta’s Emory University found that those in window seats had far fewer encounters with other passengers than people in other seats.

This is due in large part to the fact that those by the window were less likely to get up from their seat, with just 43 per cent moving around the aircraft compared to 80 per cent of people in aisle seats – meaning they were less likely to come into contact with potential virus carriers.

One of the study’s diagrams showed the likelihood of travellers coming into contact with one designated infectious passenger based on where they’re sitting. Other than those sitting on the same row as patient zero, all window seat passengers had a five per cent or less chance of coming into contact with them. Most had a 0-1 per cent probability, far lower than their middle and aisle seat counterparts.

Opting to take a window seat could, therefore, lower your risk of catching something – but the most important thing to remember is that the less you move around the plane, the lower the likelihood of you coming into contact with a virus carrier.

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