On July 4 of last year, more than 2.3 million Americans flew far and wide to their favorite destinations.
The skies were a lot friendlier then, before COVID-19 swooped in and dashed everyone’s travel plans for the foreseeable future. This year on our nation’s birthday, only 466,000 travelers heard “Flight attendants, prepare doors for departure and cross check.”
Now, after sheltering at home for months, we’re more than ready to fly again as the country loosens travel restrictions to restart the economy.
But can we fly safely? What are airlines doing to help us stay healthy? How can we protect ourselves while sharing confined quarters with possibly infected strangers?
“Flying carries a risk because it puts people in close contact,” says Dr. Alex Daneshmand, Lee Health chief quality and patient safety officer. “In general, the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction, the higher their risk of contracting COVID-19.
"Airports themselves pose risks as passengers stand in lines, check in for flights, visit food vendors and share facilities like bathrooms. This is how the virus spreads.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus primarily spreads by droplets from someone who is coughing, sneezing or even talking within a few feet away. Large droplets can fall onto surfaces and can be picked up on fingers and carried to the eyes, nose or mouth.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued COVID-19 health and safety recommendations without requiring airlines to comply with them.
In other words, airlines set their own policies regarding traveler safety, a patchwork of safety protocols that can vary among companies.
For example, some carriers are leaving middle seats open on flights, a nod to social distancing measures. Meanwhile, other carriers are booking every available seat possible.
Airlines are touting deep-cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as table rests and seat belt buckles and other onboard safety measures.
Yet, while most major U.S. airlines require crewmembers and passengers to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, some travelers refuse to wear them.
Passengers are taking to social media to report these other safety transgressions, acts that confuse and concern not just travelers but also flight attendants, who are left with trying to make people do something they aren’t mandated to.
So, while your decision whether or not to travel by plane may be fraught with uncertainty, the safety precautions you should practice if you decide to fly are critically important: starting with practicing social distancing, regular hand washing or sanitizing, and wearing a mask.
Check for travel updates before and during travel. First, before you leave, find out if coronavirus is spreading where you’re going. “If COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be at higher risk of exposure if you travel there,” Dr. Daneshmand says.
Check your state or local health department, along your travel routes, and at your planned destination. “While you’re traveling, state or local governments could enact travel restrictions, such as stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, quarantines on arrival, or even close their state borders. You don’t want to be caught off-guard.”
Limit touching frequently touched surfaces. This includes airport kiosks, digital interfaces such as touchscreens and fingerprint scanners, ticket machines, turnstiles, handrails, restroom surfaces, elevator buttons, and benches.
If you touch these surfaces, wash your hands for 20 seconds as soon as you can with soap and water or rub your hands with sanitizer containing 60 percent alcohol.
Use touchless payment and no-touch trash cans and doors when available. Exchange cash or credit cards by placing them in a receipt tray or on the counter instead of by hand, if possible.
Bring enough supplies. Before traveling, pack sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol (in case you’re unable to sanitize your hands at your destination).
Finally, stay home when appropriate. “People who are sick or have recently had a close contact (closer than 6 feet for at least 15 minutes) to a person with COVID-19 should avoid public transportation and should stay home except to seek medical care,” Dr. Daneshmand says.
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