Coronavirus: How to stay safe on a flight

As leisure travel tentatively resumes, here’s how to avoid getting ill when flying

Helen Coffey
Tuesday 14 September 2021 16:44 BST
Related video: Planes have advanced air filtration systems says WHO expert
Related video: Planes have advanced air filtration systems says WHO expert

Holidays have now resumed under the government’s traffic-light system, particularly in light of the lifting of quarantine for amber-list arrivals who’ve been fully vaccinated.

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.

From social distancing and wearing masks at the airport to limited food on aircraft, measures aimed at minimising the spread of coronavirus are now common.

But just how risky is flying? And is there any way to guarantee safety? Here’s everything you need to know.

How should I get to the airport?

Before you even arrive at the airport, there’s the getting to the airport bit to consider. 

Public transport carries a greater risk of coming into contact with new people – and therefore a greater risk of coming into contact with coronavirus – than travelling by car.

However, as The Independent’s esteemed travel correspondent, Simon Calder, would point out, driving or getting a taxi carries its own risks: road traffic accidents claim around 1,800 lives in the UK every year.

Essentially, every mode of transport carries some kind of risk. But if your main concern right now is catching Covid-19, a car is probably the best way to go (being sure to wear a mask, keep the window open and wash/sanitise your hands before and afterwards if you’re catching a cab). If travelling by public transport, mask-wearing is still recommended in the UK.

How can I stay safe at the airport?

At the airport itself, new measures are now widespread, such as social distancing and mandatory face coverings for passengers and staff.

Although travellers often fixate on planes as a hotbed of germs, the airport is potentially a much more risky proposition, bringing together people from all over the world.

Keeping your distance from those outside your household, regular hand washing or using hand sanitiser, and wearing a mask are the most important steps to take. But there are other ways to limit contact with others too: check in online and print off your boarding pass in advance where possible.

When it comes to luggage, there are two opposing stances to consider.

The Department for Transport (DfT) last year recommended that passengers check in all baggage, saying: “This will speed up boarding and disembarking and minimise the risk of transmission.”

However, Ryanair had a different take, arguing that taking hand luggage reduces the number of hands your bag passes through by a substantial amount, cutting out various baggage handlers on either side of the journey.

The airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary told The Independent last summer: “We’re recommending passengers do exactly the opposite [of the DfT advice]: maximise carry-on bags and minimise checked-in bags. Even though, clearly, we make more money out of checked-in bags.

“Our logic has always been that checked-in bags are handled by eight pairs of hands, from the check-in desk to the boarding gate, all the way through to the arrival airport as well – whereas a carry-on bag the passenger keeps with them at all times.”

Avoiding checked-in luggage also means you don’t have to congregate around the baggage carousel with lots of other people after your flight. This means you’re better able to follow the DfT’s other piece of advice: “Leave the airport as quickly as possible.”

There are risks either way – but airlines have made it very clear they will not be reducing their, at times hefty, rates for checking in a bag.

Elsewhere, trays at security are often a hotbed of bacteria at airports as they pass through so many different hands each day. (A study conducted in 2016 even suggested the trays are home to more respiratory viruses than public toilets.) 

After you’ve gone through security and removed your items from the trays provided, ensure you sanitise or wash your hands as soon as possible, being sure not to touch your face in the meantime.

How can I stay safe on the aircraft?

On board the aircraft, the DfT advises passengers to: remain seated as much as possible; follow instructions and guidance from crew; use contactless payment where possible; be aware there is likely to be reduced food and drink service; and make the cabin crew aware if you become ill.

Most airlines will require you to wear a mask onboard when not eating or drinking, and will provide hand sanitiser.

In England, Scotland and Wales passengers must wear a face covering onboard the aircraft; in Northern Ireland the measure is “recommended”. (Some airlines are very specific about which types of masks they deem acceptable - check the rules before you fly.)

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.

Are planes more dangerous than other modes of transport because of the air circulating?

Like other modes of transport and all enclosed spaces, there is a risk of virus transmission. 

One medical report, released in November 2020, found that a passenger who had tested negative for coronavirus before a flight went on to infect four others during the journey.

A total of seven passengers sitting in relatively close proximity to one another ultimately tested positive for Covid-19 following the flight, stated the report from New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research.

Another study suggested that the risk of catching coronavirus on long-haul flights is “real” after a single passenger infected 15 others on the same plane - although this did occur before masks were being widely used. The unnamed businesswoman, 27, flew from London to Vietnam during the early days of the pandemic, on 1 March 2020. She had a sore throat and a cough before boarding the 10-hour service, and tested positive for Covid-19 a few days later.

However, previous research has highlighted that the risk of catching something on a plane is pretty low in general.

The probability of actually being infected by “patient zero” was just 0-1 per cent for the vast majority of all passengers, apart from those sitting on the same row or across the aisle, according to the 2018 study mentioned earlier.

What a flight looks like in lockdown

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.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which has done extensive research on the topic of air transport and communicable diseases, backs up the assertion that people onboard an aircraft are no more likely to fall ill than anyone in a confined space.

Its fact sheet on Public Health Emergency Preparedness highlighted the importance of modern air filters on planes, which “have a similar performance” to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.

“Hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are effective at capturing greater than 99.9 per cent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air.”

The modern cabin air system delivers around 50 per cent fresh air and 50 per cent filtered, recirculated air.

“Air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free,” says IATA. Research published by IATA in October 2020 suggested that catching coronavirus on a flight was less likely than being struck by lighting.

It found that between January and July 2020 there were just 44 cases where coronavirus was thought to have been transmitted during a flight. This number included confirmed, probable and potential cases.

At the same time, the industry association said that 1.2 billion passengers travelled by air in that time, representing a one in 27 million probability of catching Covid-19 on a flight – significantly less than the chances of being struck by lightning, which is around one in 500,000 according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In essence, getting on a plane carries a similar risk to entering any confined space with others - there is no way of eliminating the danger completely, so masking up and being diligent about your personal hygiene is your best bet.

What are airlines and airports doing to maximise safety?

A host of measures have been introduced by the aviation industry since the pandemic started.

Most airlines have reduced their food and drink offering, plus are demanding contactless payment onboard. They are also doing much more regular deep cleans and cabin disinfection - for some carriers this will be undertaken daily, for others it will be done after every single flight.

A process called ‘fogging’ has also been rolled out by some airlines. It involves spraying a high-grade disinfectant through a fog machine throughout the cabin - this aerosolises the disinfectant and means it sticks to all surfaces, including seats, trays, ceiling, floors and bathrooms.

Other carriers have adopted Ultra Violet cleaning technology. Qatar Airways, for example, bought six Honeywell UV Cabin Systems, saying the tech “has been shown to be capable of inactivating various viruses and bacteria”.

About the same size as a refreshment trolley, the system features extendable UV arms that can treat seats, surfaces and cabins without using cleaning chemicals.

Numerous airports have made use of similar technology: Heathrow, Doha and Pittsburgh airport are among those that have deployed UV cleaning robots to kill microbes in frequently used areas.

Less tech-heavy methods are also being employed. At Heathrow airport, hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers have been installed, social distancing and one way systems are in place, perspex screens have been put up and there is anti-viral cleaning of all key passenger touchpoints .

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