How likely are you to catch Covid-19 on a flight?
Airlines claim that you’re no more unlikely to catch Covid-19 on a plane than in any other confined space. Still, when you fly, you are in a confined space, often for quite a long time, so what are the risks of catching the virus at 30,000 feet?
No social distancing on a plane
I’ve researched what airlines are doing to minimise the risk of passengers catching Covid-19 on their planes and the only major airline flying from the UK that said it would leave some seats empty to ensure social distancing was US airline Delta.
All other airlines claim social distancing isn’t necessary because they’re insisting instead that all passengers and crew wear face masks.
Will face masks on flights prevent the spread of Covid-19
They might … if all passengers wore their face masks properly, but having just flown with British Airways from London Heathrow to Dubrovnik and back, I realise that you simply can’t trust everyone to do what they’ve been told.
There was a very small minority of passengers on both my outbound and return flights that didn’t wear their masks. At least, not all the time. There was the late-middle-aged woman in front of me who removed her mask to eat a bag of crisps and didn’t put it back on, while her husband took his off for a snooze. No kidding.
Then there was the man who wore his on his forehead (WTH?), and the amorous couple immediately behind me on the return flight who obviously found the masks got in the way of their snogging so removed them altogether. They later watched a comedy on an iPad and laughed loudly for most of the flight, no doubt shooting spit in my direction.
And of course, little children aren’t obliged to wear masks so they present an added risk.
Getting on and off is also a risky business
Airlines claim that they are boarding planes from back to front, row by row, to avoid passengers walking past each other or standing for too long in the aisles. BA certainly followed this procedure when we boarded at Heathrow, but when we came back from Dubrovnik a week later it was a free-for-all, so those of us seated at the back traipsed passed those already seated at the front. However, when we landed, they did get us to exit the plane row by row to prevent passengers standing in the aisles.
Are planes cleaned more often?
Many airlines claim to be deep-cleaning aircraft overnight with anti-viral solutions supposed to last 24 hours, and they say they’re cleaning them more thoroughly between flights, including wiping down frequently touched areas such as seat backs and seat trays.
My BA flight to Dubrovnik, which was the first of the day, was certainly squeaky clean. I rummaged down the side of my seat to search for the usual overlooked discarded bread roll, but there was none. Also, magazines had been removed. The tray was spotless.
The return BA flight was also cleaner than usual, but not as clean as the outbound flight. There were a few tiny stains on my tray, which suggested that if it had been wiped at all, it hadn’t been wiped very well.
My advice would be to touch as little as possible and take at least one 100ml bottle of hand sanitiser to use liberally before, during and after the flight.
What else are airlines doing to prevent the spread of Covid-19?
The government has suggested to airlines that they encourage passengers to check in luggage rather than lugging big bags on board, which should speed up the boarding and deplaning. Most – except Ryanair – are doing this. Ryanair is encouraging people to pay for its Priority service, which allows you to take an extra bag on board. Go figure.
Airlines have also been told to reduce or remove their trolley service. EasyJet has suspended its trolley service completely and BA is serving free snacks (crisps, biscuits and water) in plastic bags, but Ryanair, Wizz Air and the holiday airlines Jet2 and Tui are continuing to sell meals and snack on board, but with contactless payments only.
What can you do to (possibly) minimise the risk?
While flying might not be any more risky than travelling by train or by bus, it’s still more risky than staying at home, but there are some steps you can take to try to minimise the risk:
- Fly business class so that you will have more personal space. In BA business class, the middle seat is left empty.
- Reserve a seat as close to the front as possible, then you’ll be among the last to board and first to get off, reducing your time on the flight.
- Sit by the window. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve read that passengers sitting next to the window are less at risk of catching Covid-19 than those sitting in the middle or aisle seats.
- Turn your air-conditioning on. Airlines are installed with hospital-grade HEPA filters, which trap almost all viruses (so they say), so you want to be breathing as much as this filtered air as possible rather than the stale air around you.
- Take the first flight of the day, it should have been freshly sanitised. Also, the airport and any public transport to and from the airport should be quieter. When we arrived at London Heathrow at 4am, there was (not surprisingly) hardly anyone around, but the airport was filling up as we boarded our flight at 6am.
Is flying worth the risk?
I will definitely continue to fly, even though I acknowledge there’s a risk, but I wouldn’t be comfortable travelling with an elderly relative with underlying health conditions, I think that would be too much of a gamble. Are you tempted but unsure? Book a fully refundable ticket so you can get your money back if you change your mind at the last minute.