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Ask the experts: can you fly safely during a pandemic?

By Lola Méndez
updated September 29, 2021
Frustrated traveler airport
Anyaberkut/Dreamstime
We spoke with Dr. Kunjana Mavunda, M.D., a travel medicine specialist and pulmonologist at the International Travel Clinic, to find out how to be smart about flying during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Coronavirus cases are continuing to spike in the United States making it quite unappealing to fly as it’s impossible to socially distance on a plane. Planes have a high rate of air circulation and HEPA air filters which the Mayo Clinic says helps to prevent the spread of the virus. Flying is still risky as airports are busy and flights are often crowded. Delta is keeping middle seats passenger-less through at least January 6th while American, Southwest, and United are no longer blocking off middle seats.

The CDC doesn’t recommend holiday travel and notes that “social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.” Yet, a recent study found that 23% of Americans will travel for the December holidays

If you absolutely must travel on an airplane there are precautions you can take to lower the chances of catching COVID-19 and passing it along to others unknowingly. We spoke with Dr. Kunjana Mavunda, M.D., a travel medicine specialist and pulmonologist at the International Travel Clinic, to find out how to be smart about flying during the COVID-19 global pandemic. “Flying cannot be COVID-19 safe—especially, currently, where our COVID-19 numbers are high in so many parts of the USA and the world.”

  1. Get a COVID-19 test before flying, even if it’s not required

Dr. Mavunda says that FDA approved rapid tests give quick results compared to PCR tests that take longer to get the results but notes that PCR tests may be more reliable. “The test should be taken as close to travel as possible,” Dr. Mavunda says. 

After getting tested, It’s important to quarantine until your flight. “People can be asymptomatic but can still transmit the infection. One can get infected after the test or during travel,” Dr. Mavunda says. “One should assume that they’re infected, considering how fast our numbers are increasing.”

2. Choose an airline with strict COVID-19 regulations

Book a flight with as few layovers as possible to avoid airports. Opt to fly with airlines that require a negative COVID-19 test, enforce mask-wearing, reduce cabin services, middle seats blocked out, paperless check-in, and have stringent disinfecting measures.

“An airline that enforces mask-wearing in waiting areas at the airport; one that’s careful about not allowing people to travel if they have a fever or other respiratory symptoms and does not overbook will be ideal. Also, the airline should use special sanitizing equipment after people disembark and before new passengers embark,” Dr. Mavunda says. 

3. Wear proper PPE from the moment you enter the departure airport until you leave the arrival airport

Make sure you have a proper mask to wear while flying—a handkerchief or a mask with ventilators won’t protect you or others. “A surgical mask and shield will be best.

A face shield will give additional protection, but should be used with a mask, not on its own,” Dr. Mavunda says. Some airlines don’t allow face shields at all and others only allow them when paired with a proper face mask. A reusable cotton mask that properly fits the face and covers the nose and mouth adequately will suffice. Dr. Mavunda says it’s fine to double mask but it may make it difficult to breathe on long flights.

4. Bring as much hand sanitizer on board as you’re allowed

You’ll want to clean your hands often while traveling—and have lotion to help your hands retain moisture. “Passengers should sanitize their hands regularly during a flight, including before and after eating or drinking, immediately after sitting down, and after every time you get up and move around,” Dr. Mavunda says. 

Use the sanitizer to clean your area including the tray table and any food or beverage packaging. Do your best to reduce touchpoints and never touch flight attendants. “I keep my hands clasped in common areas to remind myself not to touch surfaces and not to touch my face,” Dr. Mavunda says.

Fabric seats cannot be cleaned properly so Dr. Mavunda recommends choosing an airline that uses special sanitizing equipment in between flights. You can also bring a towel or blanket to serve as a barrier between the seat and your body.

5. Maintain a social distance at the airport 

Stay at least six feet away from other people at the airport. Avoid a large carry-on so you can avoid boarding the plane quickly to secure overhead bin space. Dr. Mavunda says it’s best to be the last to enter the plane. “Pack wisely so that you can have a carry on with your essentials that fits under the seat. Pay for checked luggage. Try to get a seat as close to the entrance as possible so that you’re the last one on and the first one off,” Dr. Mavunda says.

6. Be mindful of your behavior in flight

Keep your mask on throughout the flight. Eat before you arrive at the airport to avoid removing your mask to eat at the airport or on the flight. If you have to eat, clean your hands right after and put your mask on immediately. Don’t read the in-flight magazine.

As COVID-19 is spread through liquid particles Dr. Mavunda says to talk softly and avoid loud people while traveling. “One should not sit next to a person who doesn’t keep the mask on,” Dr. Mavunda says. “Ask to be moved if someone around you isn’t being compliant and the flight attendant is unable to take action.”

Dr. Mavunda recommends avoiding areas where people congregate or have high usage, such as toilets. If you plan to keep your air vent on full blast bring a hat and scarf to stay warm while flying.


Lola Méndez is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist who runs the blog Miss Filatelista.

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