Flying during coronavirus: Travel safety tips

Don’t get on an airplane right now unless you absolutely have to.

Don’t leave your house unless you have to, frankly. The coronavirus pandemic: still a thing. Hospitalizations and deaths have been declining, but transmission rates have recently crept higher in L.A. County, and public health officials have not declared it jet-setting season yet.

There are reasons some people might still need to get on a plane, like caring for a family member in a medical emergency, or relocating for a new job. A recent study showed how the novel coronavirus had spread on two international flights earlier this year. But both incidents took place before airlines implemented mandatory mask-wearing. Traveling by plane is likely safer now — but not without risks. If you absolutely have to fly, here are tips from experts on how to do it as safely as possible.

Before your flight

First and foremost: Do not travel if you have any symptoms of COVID-19. Do not travel if you recently had symptoms of COVID-19 and got tested but haven’t gotten the results, even if you’re feeling better. Most airlines have broadly expanded your ability to change your flight without paying a penalty. Take advantage of that flexibility. No trip is worth potentially endangering other people at the airport, on your plane and at your destination.

When you’re choosing a flight, look at the carrier’s seating policies. At the start of the pandemic, it seemed as though every airline was loudly declaring the middle seats would be left open for social distancing purposes. But photos posted to Twitter quickly showed not everyone meant it.

“We’re six months in at this point, and we know which airlines are actually staying true to their word there,” said Zach Honig, an editor-at-large at travel website the Points Guy.

He said Delta and JetBlue have upheld the no-middle-seat-booking policy, and Southwest, while it still allows passengers to choose their own seats, has capped ticket sales so that effectively middle seats remain unsold.

If you need to fly on a different airline, you can also call and ask to purchase the seat next to you to keep it open.

Every airline requires passengers to wear a face mask. Paula Cannon, a virologist and professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, said she prefers the KN95 mask, but that the best mask for you is a tightly fitting one you can wear for a long period of time without having to touch it, adjust it, or itch under it.

There’s some speculation that wearing glasses also helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by blocking particles from entering through your eyes. It won’t hurt to wear your glasses for your trip, if you’ve got them. And if you want to wear goggles or a face shield in addition to your mask, you probably won’t be the only one at the airport. There’s no such thing as taking it too seriously.

“If I was on the plane and people had masks and shields and bags over their head, I’d be like, ‘Great, I hope that’s my seatmate,’” Cannon said.

Dan Uslan, the co-chief infection prevention officer at UCLA Health, wrote in an email that travelers should observe the three Ws: Wash or sanitize your hands frequently, wear a mask, and watch your distance from others at all times. Maintain your bubble: If someone is getting too close to you, ask them to back off.

At the airport

Mask-wearing and social distancing are as important on the ground as in the air. When you get to the airport, you’re navigating security lines, boarding procedures and bored or antsy travelers in shops and restaurants.

While it might be tempting to relax with a drink — and without your mask on while you drink it — at the airport bar, any time your mask is down, your risk goes up. For safety’s sake, skip the preflight cocktail or snacks.

When it’s time to board, don’t hurry to get in line. Honig, of the Points Guy, says most airlines will let you refresh the seat map of your plane in an app or online. If there’s an emptier area on the plane, you can ask the gate agent to reassign you to one of those seats.

The jet bridge is probably more risky than the flight itself, Cannon said, since there’s little ventilation and people are often crammed in. Like in the security line, don’t be afraid to ask people to keep their distance, or wait and be the last person to board.

On the plane

You’ve made it through the pre-boarding minefield. Before you sit down, consider using sanitizing wipes to give your seatbelt, seat arms, the TV console, the front and back of the tray table, and anything else you might touch a once-over. While surface transmission of coronavirus is less of an issue than originally believed, it’s still a good idea to sanitize as much as possible.

Once you sit down, take advantage of the plane’s air filtration system, which will filter out a lot of virus particles and dissipate the rest, Cannon said. Turn on the air nozzle and point it right at your face. Bring a jacket to ward off chilliness and avoid having to touch a shared airplane blanket.

Airlines have been enforcing mask-wearing, but everyone is allowed to remove their mask to eat and drink. Honig said he’s heard some people will take advantage of that and draw out mealtime as long as possible.

If food and drinks are served on your flight, wait until the people around you have finished eating and put their masks back on before taking yours off, he recommended. Or avoid taking off your mask at all by poking a straw under it to drink, and then wait to eat until you arrive at your destination. Or don’t eat or drink at all on your flight.

If you use the bathroom and decide that private area is a good opportunity for a little mask break, reconsider. The person in there before you might have had the same thought, and the person before them, and the person before them. When’s the last time you were in an airplane bathroom and thought, Wow, this small, enclosed space is so well-ventilated and full of fresh air? Keep the mask on.

Basically, stay in your seat with your mask in its upright and locked (to your face) position for as much of the flight as possible.

Once you land, don’t rush to get off — again, maintaining your bubble is more important than saving a few minutes.

When you’re out of the airport and arrive at your destination, take a deep, mask-free breath. You’ve earned it.

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