This is the second part of a two-part article series. The first part establishes if there actually is a risk of becoming infected by the Covid-19 virus (or any other airborne-transmitted infection) when flying.
In this second part, we now provide you with 19 specific strategies for minimizing your risk, and some further general discussion on risk avoidance.
Here are 19 things you can do to maximize your chance of stepping off a flight as healthy as when you arrived at the airport earlier in the day.
1. Drive yourself to the airport, or have a family member living with you take you there. Buses seem to be a high risk environment, and any other sort of public/shared with unknown others transport is similarly much more risky than using your own safe vehicle.
2. Wear a mask from prior to entering the terminal building until back in a safe environment (whatever that might be) after arrival.
3. Arrive as late as prudent to the airport terminal, do not do any shopping or eating/drinking, and keep as far away from other people as possible.
Try to do all parts of the check-in process electronically rather than interacting with people, and use the electronic boarding pass app on your phone rather than printing out a boarding pass.
We’d recommend using the toilet facilities at the airport so as not to need to move about the airplane cabin if your flight is going to be sufficiently short in duration. But don’t linger. Public toilets are probably the highest risk area of an airport (or plane), not just from contact surfaces but from “viral plumes” possibly emerging from toilets when flushed.
When going to your gate, it is better to keep your distance from all your fellow passengers – as long as you can hear the boarding announcements and see what is happening, that is fine. You can probably do that from an adjacent empty gate, or from the other side of the corridor.
4. Upgrade from coach class if you can afford it, or if you have frequent flier miles. The lower seat density and passenger numbers in Premium Economy, Business, or First Class mean lower risk and better social distancing.
In a premium cabin, try to be at the opposite end of the cabin to where the toilets are. For example, in first class, if the toilets are at the front of the cabin, try to get a seat near the back.
5. If you’re in Coach class, pay extra for a seat as close as possible to the front of the plane. This means you’ll have less distance to travel in the plane to and from your seat. More than that, it means you’ll be one of the first people to leave the plane upon arrival.
Alternatively, take a seat in the very back of the plane (unless there are toilets next to or behind you). The very back of the plane can be a “refuge” with little traffic, but of course, if there are toilets in the back, you’ll have a steady stream of people moving past you all flight long.
If the very first row of coach class is a bulkhead row, and if there are toilets nearby, it might be preferable to sit one row back from the bulkhead. Passengers sometimes spill into the bulkhead area a bit while waiting for their toilet turn. In theory, airlines are seeking to limit the number of people now standing around waiting for toilets, but what the reality of this will be is probably very variable.
6. Break the habit of a lifetime and be the last to board the plane rather than the first. The time of greatest risk is during the boarding and deplaning process. Get on last and you’ll avoid most of that risk.
7. If you’re in coach class and it is a relatively short flight such that you probably won’t need to use the bathroom during the flight, take a window seat. That gives you one side that is relatively safe, and also more protection from the uncontrolled environment in the aisle and the air currents caused by people moving up and down the aisle.
8. Once on board, get anything you might need out of your carry-on then stow the carry on and try to leave it for the rest of the flight.
9. Clean your seat area and touch surfaces. We’re not too worried about the seat surfaces, but the arm rests, the tray table, the seat belt and the air vent above you are all surfaces you are likely to be touching. If there’s a seat back video screen, and you plan to use it, be sure to wipe that down too. Use hand sanitizer (and tissues if needed) to wet all surfaces, and let them air dry – the longer the sanitizer stays on the surfaces, the more time it has to kill more virus particles.
10. Adjust the overhead air vent to blow air directly on your face. You may need to adjust the flow rate after the plane has started up and the pilots turn on the main cabin air flow.
This means you’re getting a steady stream of direct-from-the-filters-or-outside air blowing on to your face, and pushing the existing air around you away. It is thought – and intuitively it seems to make sense – this might blow away any viral particles that otherwise could end up in your face and being breathed in.
We’d suggest you don’t set the flow to maximum. If you do that, and if some virus particles end up getting “sucked” into the stream of air flowing at you, the force of the air makes it more likely the viral particles will enter your mouth or nose and travel on down to your lungs. A gentle breeze should be sufficient.
11. After you’ve cleaned your area, clean your hands.
At this point, you’ve optimized your environment and yourself, and there’s little more you can do. Here are a few pointers for while you are in-flight, however.
12. Do not speak to the passengers close to you (unless they are traveling with you). There is no risk in you speaking to them, but when they speak to you they will be looking at you and projecting virus particles directly at you.
13. One exception to the “don’t speak to the person next to you” suggestion. If you see they don’t have a mask, cough a bit, then say to them “I’m sorry, I’ve a bit of a cough, I’m wearing a mask and I have some spares – can I give you one just to be certain I don’t give you whatever it is I might have”. [Update – in theory, all US airlines are now mandating mask wearing. You can be more assertive and if necessary, complain to a flight attendant or at least ask to be moved.]
This is a much less confrontational way of handling the situation – of course, your main concern is they wear a mask to protect you, and the cough is merely an artifice to help encourage them to accept your offer of a mask.
14. Unless the flight is “too long” try not to accept any food or drink from the flight attendants. It is better not to eat at all, but if you must, it is better to eat your own food because you know its source. Drinks in sealed bottles from the flight attendants are okay, and sealed food containers are okay too.
If you are going to eat, we recommend you use hand sanitizer again prior to eating. It is a good habit to get into – always wash your hand/use hand sanitizer before any eating, whether you “need to” or not (because, especially at present, you always need to).
Don’t handle any of the material that is in the seat-back pouch in front of you.
15. Again, unless the flight is “too long”, stay in your seat for the entire flight. Don’t go to the toilet unless you must.
If you need to use the toilet, there’s no need to contort your body and do strange things to avoid touching surfaces in the toilet. Simply be sure to thoroughly hand sanitize after leaving the toilet and before returning to your seat, and then again once you are seated.
16. If you’re on a longer flight, the lack of humidity can have an impact. Consider having a small little misting/squirt bottle that you can use to create a very fine spray of water that you can breathe in through your nose and mouth occasionally. This helps keep your mucous membranes moist and therefore better able to trap viral particles before they go down to your lungs.
Once the plane lands.
17. If you’re near the front of the plane, get off the plane as quickly as you can. If you’re near the back of the plane, wait in your seat until most other people have left the plane.
18. Move efficiently through the airport, without doing any non-essential shopping, and leave it as soon as possible.
19. Drive yourself from the airport to your final destination (rental car or your car) or have a family member you live with collect you.
Gloves and Goggles as well as Masks?
We occasionally see people who have taken a much more serious approach to keeping themselves safe from any possible virus infection.
There are two common extra steps that some people take. Gloves and goggles or face shield.
We don’t generally see any benefit in gloves whatsoever when it comes to protecting yourself from catching the Covid-19 infection. The virus is not thought to be able to seep in through your skin, or through any cuts/abrasions on your skin, so from that perspective, gloves add no extra value.
If you wear gloves, all you do is replace the ability of the virus to get onto your hand, and then be directly transferred from your hand to your mouth/nose/eyes, and instead, the virus can get onto the glove, and then transfer just as easily (maybe even more easily) from the glove to your mouth/nose/eyes, the same as before.
Gloves quickly get as dirty as your skin would. It is easier to not bother about gloves, and any time you’re worried about touching an unclean surface, simply reach for the hand sanitizer.
On the other hand, goggles or a face shield might be helpful, because it seems the virus can enter your system via your eyes. The risk of this is low if you’re in a risky environment for a short while, but if you’re on a plane for half a dozen hours, then you’ve had a steady stream of air flowing onto your eyes, some of which may contain virus particles.
A pair of safety glasses might be a positive addition – they can deflect a stream of viral particles away from your eyes. The larger the safety glasses, the better. It is possible to wear some types of safety glasses and not have them look too unusual. Even a pair of large-framed sunglasses would be a help.
Goggles can also help because they make it harder for you to instinctively reach up and rub your eyes with your hands.
A pair of goggles can definitely reduce your eyes’ exposure to whatever is floating in the air around them, and especially on longer flights, this might become of value.
General Precautions and Prophylactic Measures
Now we start moving into the realm of “might be true” concepts – various drugs, supplements, minerals and vitamins that might strengthen your body’s resistance to the virus. Fortunately, many of these things are in the category of “might help, and won’t hurt you if they don’t” so I’ve tended to be fairly positive and not too critical.
This article from the Eastern Virginia Medical School has an interesting section on page 3 about prophylactic strategies. I am not a doctor, so can’t assertively comment, but I can “translate” – BID means “twice a day by mouth”, u/day means “units per day”, and if you’re reading further down, “q” means each/every/per.
Our own strategy is to take a multi-vitamin tablet each day that goes part way to the Zinc and Vitamin D3 doses recommended. A little more Zinc (don’t overdo it) and same for the Vitamin D3, closer to their recommended levels, might be good.
But always be careful – you can overdose on supplements and vitamins/minerals, the same as any other medicine/drug.
We like the concept of gargling at least every evening and maybe during the day as well with a 1% – 1.5% hydrogen peroxide solution. We also like using a propolis spray, squirting it into the back of our mouth/throat, any time we feel we’ve encountered an increased level of risk.
We have no opinion on the melatonin and famotidine suggestions, but if we were going on a flight, we’d definitely take them, starting the day before, and continuing for several days after the flight. We’d also take the quercetin they recommend.
For sure, you’ve more chance of getting the virus on a flight than you do staying at home. But equally for sure, currently we’ve about 800,000 people flying every day in the US, and, as best we know, more than 99% of those fliers don’t catch the virus.
So is your risk 1 in 100, or 1 in 1,000, or even 1 in 100,000 that you’ll catch the virus if you fly somewhere? That depends on very many things, and – most of all – it depends on you and how careful you are to minimize the risks while traveling.
We’re trying to avoid air travel whenever possible at present, but if it becomes necessary, we’re reasonably confident we can fly without problems. If you follow our recommended strategies, you’re most likely to complete your flights without any problems, too.
If you missed it, please also see the first part of this two-part article that establishes if there actually is a risk of catching the virus when flying or not.
7 thoughts on “What You Can Do to Minimize Your Virus Risk When Flying”
I absolutely loved these pieces. Unfortunately, you published them the day after I flew from Asia back to the US. But I intuitively followed many of the ideas.
I flew through a hub in Korea. My first flight was only 1/3 full when I booked 10 days in advance. Imagine my horror when I saw the large crowd in the gate area. The flight was almost completely full. They even filled the middle seats. Everyone wore masks, but most were cheap paper junk or even those single ply cloth masks that look like they’re using an old t-shirt.
I wore an N95 respirator and covered it with a surgical mask. I had also cut up a thin “hoodie” sweater and wore the hood part over my head. Then I used a plastic face shield. And finally, I draped a thin blanket over me. Yes, I was hot and breathing wasn’t a ton of fun.
Overkill? Maybe. But I was going to put as many barriers in place as I could, as I’m fairly high risk. I just willed myself into another place, didn’t eat, drink, or go to the bathroom, or remove my mask(s). Unfortunately it was a 787 without personal air flow jets. I thought about trying to buy an upgrade to the nearly empty Biz class, but it was too late (and would have cost a fortune).
Just out of curiosity, while in flight, I measured my blood oxygen. It was down to 93%. Not great, but I have spent time in the mountains of Colorado and can handle lower oxygen environments for a while. If you don’t panic, breathe slow and steady, you can get used to it. I had worn N95’s for many hours while I was in Asia and was able to acclimatize to it. Think about diving and you might have a comparison.
At Inchon I was able to shower in an empty lounge, tossed all my PPE and changed clothes. The second flight only had perhaps 40 people and we spaced ourselves far apart. I even gave myself the luxury of eating a quick bite and taking a drink (and I mean quick!). I sat in the rear, away from most people.
I’m in for 5-7 days of concern as I self-quarantine. But my feeling is that the quality of my PPE and practices was similar to what medical staff do. And they deal with rooms full of actively sick people, for long shifts. And most don’t get infected. I satisfy myself with the fact that I did everything I could think of and I will hope for the best.
Does this sound like the way you would like to start your next vacation? Probably not. I know I don’t want to repeat this experience.
I should have tried to rush out a “pre-publication” version to you, but I was only requested to write the article yesterday. Glad you got most of it right, anyway.
Do remember the post-flight stuff. Gargle every night, use Propolis and the other recommended preventative medicines too for the next week or two.
And please let us know when the danger period has passed and you’re okay.
Thanks for the reminders. I have been gargling, taking vitamins and melatonin. I tried to find Pepsid but no luck. I did find zinc and will start that.
I don’t have OCD (I actually hate having to do this stuff), but the last several months almost make me wish I did 😉
I ordered some from Costco yesterday. Note that it is Pepcid not Pepsid (your spelling) – if you were searching for Pepsid, maybe that’s why you didn’t find any?
Thanks. Fat finger typo, but it was Pepcid AC that was sold out at my local market. Found the generic version at my local Target, so am starting that immediately.
Great article. There’s one other thing that should greatly reduce your risk: find the emptiest flight available. I’d call the airline — don’t just look at the online seat map, which might not reflect all reservations. Actually I’d call all airlines that offer nonstop flights on the route. I’d call them once before booking, and again the day before flying so that if things had changed a lot, I could rebook on another flight.
Yes, definitely, the fewer fellow pax, the better. But it can be very hard to ascertain that number accurately – you need to understand not just how many seats remain available for sale, but the true count of seats sold – the “available to sell” number includes an allowance for oversales.
Not all airlines have waivers for “if you think we’re too full, you can change”, and numbers can change even at the last minute (airlines are sometimes cancelling at the last minute if loadings are very low). Plus there’s no guarantee that the next flight will be any better, and on some routes, the next flight might not be until tomorrow or even later.