We really don’t have a way to make flying safer for you in the age of coronavirus, but it’s a big topic as leisure air travel increases daily. As of November, U.S. passenger numbers have risen to about 40% of what they were last year according to TSA figures. After the big Thanksgiving hoiday surge, experts are predicting more travel over Christmas and New Year’s.
Fortunately, air travel safety measures including contactless check-in, onboard hygiene, passenger cooperation and sanitized public spaces are already being implemented to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The biggest challenge for the airlines, airports and TSA Security checkpoints remains you — how to maintain social distancing during a vacation rush.
Should You Really Be Flying?
The CDC continues to recommend staying home as the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick. While a lot of travelers are listening, the airlines need you back. Much of the aviation industry is doing all it can to make flying safe without, of course, having all the facts.
In Asia-Pacific, notes Business Insider, airlines are doing COVID blood tests, COVID nasal swabs and instant antigen testing so that infected passengers don’t even board planes. United recently offered rapid antigen tests to crew and passengers over age 2 on board select flights from Newark Liberty to London Heathrow, free of charge. Anyone waiving the test was placed on another flight, guaranteeing everyone on board other than children under 2 will have tested negative before departure. Delta is currently trialing similar testing on flights between Atlanta and Italy.
Many believe this is the future for all airlines though the U.S. is nowhere near meeting this standard.
How the Airlines are Trying to Make Flying Safer
From reviewing this up-to-date guide on each airline’s safety policies, airlines are for the most part taking a layered approach, similar to what passengers are probably doing at home — touch, scrub, rinse, repeat.
Initially, said Robin Hayes, JetBlue CEO, airlines focused on encouraging both staff and customers not to fly if they weren’t feeling well. What Hayes predicted — the waiving of cancellation and change fees initiated in response to COVID-19 — has come true forever on United, American and Delta Airlines, who announced their new policies Sept. 1. Several airlines have recently extended this change fee waiver to international flights.
Check your airline prior to purchasing tickets as these rules will continue to evolve, especially with respect to domestic and international tickets and standby fees (in case a later flight is less crowded and you prefer to wait.)
Intensified Aircraft Cleaning Protocols
Several airlines are using electrostatic fogging machines to achieve a higher level of cleaning – this video from AirCanada illustrates how an aerosol-style sanitizer can get into corners that airline maintenance personnel cannot reach. They are also testing ultraviolet light as a possible disinfectant.
What about inflight air recycling? Forty percent of the air is changed throughout an airplane approximately every three minutes, notes a Lufthansa spokesperson, after going through HEPA filters to screen up to 99.97% of finer particulate matter. The rest of the air that is mixed in comes from outside the plane while it’s cruising.
What You Can Do to Keep Yourself Flying Safer: Face Masks
To best way to ensure your own safety, experts say, wear a face mask.
Although there’s still no Federal or FAA policy in place, the Airlines for America industry group insisted that member airlines make pre-flight announcements clarifying face mask requirements, communicate inflight about requirements and punishment for non-compliance and devise their own punishment — up to and including bans from future flights — for those who don’t cooperate.
In October, CDC released a recommendation to use face coverings — not a law — on all transportation.
What You Can Do to Keep Yourself Flying Safer: Hygiene
Dr. Elliot Stein of Pennsylvania Hospital suggests travelers follow the first responders’ protocol: wear comfortable leisure wear under your airplane outfit and remove possibly infected clothes after landing. Bag those clothes separately for thorough washing and wash, wash, wash your hands.
There’s more you can do.
Before settling in, use wipes to clean all the touchpoints around you: window shade, armrests, seatbelt buckles, seatback trays, screens, overhead call buttons and power outlets. Some experts suggest travelers avoid using the lavatory on any flight and Dr. Stein agrees, saying that waiting in line for airplane toilets can increase exposure risk.
Lastly, don’t forget your luggage. Rollaboards have less contact with the ground, a good thing these days. Hard-sided rolling suitcases are even better because they can be sprayed and disinfected more easily than fabric. If you check your luggage, be sure to use your wipes to clean the handles and all available surfaces before handling it yourself and do it again once you reach your destination.
Improve Your Chances of Social Distance
Book a window seat because social distancing is key to avoiding catching a virus from others.
Currently, few airlines are keeping middle seats free if passengers are not in the same group: Delta (through March, 2021), Southwest (through Nov. 30) and Hawaiian. Other airlines are offering every seat for sale. Note that on smaller aircraft, some airlines are keeping aisle seats empty to provide more passenger space.
Why is this such a challenging option? With most airlines’ breakeven load factor of 75%-85%, it’s just not sustainable to block all middle seats or cap passenger loads at 50% forever. And, airline executives add, taking out enough rows to provide six feet between passengers is not a viable economic proposition either.
What Airports are Doing to Make Flying Safer
They’re starting with spreading out customers while they’re waiting, eating, shopping and boarding planes. Heat-mapping, video surveillance and other new technologies in use at New York’s stunning new LaGuardia Terminal B, are identifying areas where customers are not enforcing social distancing so airport personnel can intervene.
Lufthansa, in conjunction with Star Alliance, is launching Star Alliance Biometrics in late November to offer interested frequent flyers a “no touch” security and boarding option. They will use biometric security checkpoint access and boarding via facial recognition — without asking passengers to remove face masks — at their Frankfurt and Munich hubs.
Common Pass is a private-public effort to develop an app that would safely store passenger COVID-19 test results in a common format accessible across all borders. This digital health pass was trialed successfully in October and may speed the reopening of international borders. There’s more to come.
Airports and airlines are also working together to enhance cleaning and disinfecting technology throughout the traveler’s journey.
Airport Security Changes to Make Flying Safer
The TSA’s revised security protocols reduce touchpoints for passengers and their staff. To reduce the potential for cross-contamination at security checkpoint, travelers handle their own boarding passes, place them in the TSA provided scanner and hold them up for visual inspection.
Passengers should place their carry-on food items into a clear plastic bag and place that bag into a bin to reduce the need for closer inspection. (TSA Precheck members do not need to remove items from their bags.)
Hand luggage will be cleared with up to 12 oz. bottles of hand sanitizer (it must be removed and submitted for x-ray screening), but any other prohibited items that are found will send you back to square one — outside the security portal — to dispose of them without TSA staff handling your luggage.
Social distancing is mandatory for passengers and airport employees.
Are We Ready to Assure Safer Flying?
New research reveals that the hospital-grade air purification systems in aircraft, coupled with measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, are making flying safe once again. This CNN article on in-flight safety examines several recent medical studies and the conflicting evidence they provide.
A note to those considering international travel; U.S. Passport Services are in different phases of reopening, making issuing new passports or renewals extremely slow. Check the status of the passport office nearest you.
So, should You Fly in the Age of Coronavirus?
Is there safer flying in the age of coronavirus? Until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 widely available to everyone, every passenger will have to decide on their personal level of risk tolerance before flying.
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