Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment

UPDATE as of November 23: In the nearly two months since I wrote this post, the situation has changed dramatically. While it’s still “relatively safe” to fly — assuming you wear a high-quality mask the entire time you’re in the airport and on the plane — it’s far from foolproof. And especially with the massive spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide, and the airport crowds around holiday travel, I would never set foot on an airplane under current circumstances. This decision involves two major considerations: Whether you’ll get sick from being on the plane (which is primarily what’s addressed in this post); and whether you may already be infected, but not yet symptomatic, and will be carrying a deadly disease to a new place — worsening a pandemic that is already stretching our heath care system to its limits.  For the trip described here, my wife and I traveled in the late summer, when cases were much lower, and we were careful to self-isolate for an extended period between landing and seeing our relatives. I would never make this trip today. Someone who flies cross-country, and immediately enters the home of a vulnerable loved one, is taking both of their lives in their hands. Please: Unless it’s an emergency, stay home. Safe and effective vaccines are right around the corner. Skip in-person Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, for just this one year, and have one hell of an Easter or Fourth of July reunion (depending on when your family is fully vaccinated.) The end is in sight. We’re almost there. Let’s stay safe and look out for each other!

I recently got on a plane for the first time in eight months. Leading up to the trip, I thought long and hard about whether air travel was advisable with a deadly pandemic still raging. We live in an age of high-stakes judgment calls, and this one felt especially tricky. Is it safe to fly during the coronavirus?

I am not a medical professional, nor am I qualified to give hard advice about what’s “safe.” What I can offer is one traveler’s decision-making process about whether to get on that plane. You may think I’m crazy for flying. Or you may think I’m crazy for overthinking this decision. You’re both right…for you. Here’s what was right for me. If you have a different (science-based) perspective…let me know in the Comments.

My wife and I were debating whether to make a cross-country trip to check in on close relatives we haven’t seen in many months. The first question was, simply: Is flying safe? So we did some homework.

At this point, it appears rare for travelers to become infected during a plane flight. There have been a few documented cases, but these were very early in the pandemic (February and March), before airlines and travelers began taking precautions. (Meanwhile, there are also reports of coughing, infected people who apparently caused no spread at all.) In fact, airlines claim that flight crews have lower rates of COVID-19 infection than the general population. You can parse that data in various ways, but I take it as an encouraging sign about the strict guidelines that now govern commercial flights. To be clear: This doesn’t mean that on-board transmission has not happened. But if it’s happening regularly, I’d imagine experts would have identified that pattern over the last six months.

Why is on-board infection seemingly so rare? The transmission of COVID-19 is primarily through respiratory droplets that can linger (and, quite possibly, recirculate) in the air. You may have heard about cases where one infected person in a café or on a bus has spread the virus to many others. But airplane air is filtered at a high rate, using HEPA filters to screen out 99.97% of airborne particulates, and fully replenishing the entire plane’s air supply every two to four minutes.

Considering the high air filtration standards, the biggest risk in commercial air travel seems to be the people in your immediate vicinity. You can’t socially distance on an airplane, and those early airplane outbreaks were traced to a small section of the plane. But wearing a good mask greatly reduces your risk, as do thoroughly washing your hands as often as you can, using sanitizer between hand-washings, and refraining from touching your face. Some models suggest that booking with a carrier that keeps middle seats open reduces your potential exposure to an infected seatmate.

This information gave us peace of mind about the risk of flying to us. But what about the risk we might introduce to others? The fact is, air travel spreads COVID — not necessarily by infecting people while they’re on the plane, but by transporting infected people to new areas. Through social distancing, wearing masks when appropriate, and self-isolating, my wife and I were fairly confident of reducing our exposure to others both at home and at our destination. (In fact, we self-isolated for a lengthy period on either end just to make sure.) If our daily lives required a higher degree of interaction, or had the purpose of our trip been a gathering — such as a family reunion or a wedding — we would not have taken that flight.

With a clear understanding of the risks, our next question was: Were we willing to take those risks? I find it helpful to consider these decisions in terms of “risk budgeting.” This begins with the idea that risk isn’t a binary condition. It’s a spectrum. We all take risks every day — some big, some small. The goal is to have a finite sense of how much risk you’re willing to take, overall, and then “spend” that risk thoughtfully. For example, several weeks ago, I went in for a long-overdue dental appointment. I knew I was exposing myself (and others) to more than my usual risk — so I was especially careful before and after that visit to reduce my contact with others. It’s human nature for one risky activity to embolden you to engage in another, then another. Risk budgeting helps keep you honest and responsible.

Obviously, different people have different risk budgets. Before making any of these decisions, each person ought to make an honest and realistic assessment of their own risk. I’m a generally healthy person in my mid-40s, with no major pre-existing conditions. I’m reasonably fit, but I’m hardly a decathlete. Statistically, if I contracted COVID-19, I would likely have a mild to moderate case. My odds of ending up in an ICU (or worse) are small, but they’re not zero. And any COVID case comes with a strong possibility of long-term damage. Knowing all of this makes me more cautious than careless. If I were 10 or 15 years older, and/or if I had underlying conditions that put me at higher risk, I’d have a much smaller risk budget to spend — and I would not have taken this flight, period. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, and an ultramarathon swimmer, I might have a little more risk budget to spend — but I’d do so mindful of the risk I’d pose to others.

Another consideration is to weigh the risks you’re taking against the benefits. For example, a few months into the pandemic, my wife and I desperately wanted to see my parents (who live a short and safe car ride away). We’d been very careful, and so had they, but there was still a possibility of exposing each other — and their age put them in a higher-risk group than us. I consulted with a family friend who’s also a trauma surgeon, and she suggested that the relatively small risk might be outweighed by the very large positive impact the visit would have on all of our mental health during such a troubled time. Because we were all being so careful, we chose to “expand our social bubble” to include each other…and have been glad we did.

And so, with all of this in mind, my wife and decided to get on that plane. We took several precautions to further reduce our risk (and read up on lots of advice, including from the CDC). We booked a direct flight (limiting our time in airports and exposure to fellow passengers) and took advantage of a deal that guaranteed us our own row to ourselves (expanding our ability to social distance on board). We chose a carrier — Alaska Airlines — with a particularly strict face-covering policy, which requires all passengers to wear masks at all times, no exceptions.

On the day of travel, we brought plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which we used liberally. And we wore masks from the moment we entered the airport at one end until the moment we exited the airport at the other end. And for good measure, since I was sitting on the aisle, I also wore a face shield on board. Sure, I looked a bit strange, and I was the only person I saw who was taking these “belt and suspenders” measures. But I didn’t feel silly. I felt safe. (Well, safer.) Vanity has no place in a pandemic.

Deciding how to get to the airport proved to be another exercise in risk budgeting — in this case, measured against actual budget. The free and easy option would be to ask a friend for a ride. But we realized that would mean being in a car with someone we’ve been careful to socially distance from — potentially exposing us or him. So that left two options: Uber or parking at the airport. While the Uber rides both ways would have been a bit cheaper, we chose to splurge on parking at the airport — to conserve our risk budget, to avoid potentially exposing yet another person to our germs (and vice-versa), and to buy a little more peace of mind.

We were definitely nervous leading up to the flight. But the reality was less scary than we expected. The airport was virtually empty. So was the airplane — fewer than half of the seats were occupied. Everyone wore masks, and on the rare occasion that a mask slipped under someone’s nose, the situation was quickly, politely, and firmly remedied.

The day after we arrived, we put on our masks and went for a walk in the neighborhood, where we saw scores of unmasked people eating and drinking in bars and restaurants. Knowing what I know now, personally, I’d rather spend a few careful hours on an airplane than eat inside at a restaurant. It’s that old “fear/risk” assessment — often the things that frighten us are less risky than we might think, and vice-versa. Understanding the science helps make those decisions clearer.

I want to stress that I’m not going to make a habit of flying for the time being. I will personally not fly to see family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s likely that I won’t see the inside of another airplane until 2021; I intend to strictly limit my long-distance travel until this pandemic is more under control (and, ideally, a safe and effective vaccine has been distributed). And I would not recommend flying to just anybody — someone in a higher risk category should think long and hard about engaging in any activity with a potential for exposure. But if I were in a pinch and felt I needed to fly, I have more confidence now than I did before this trip.

What about you? Have you taken any flights since the outbreak began — and how did it go? Also, how are you making these kinds of stressful decisions during the pandemic? Does the “risk budgeting” approach work for you — or is there another helpful way of thinking about it?

There may be no easy answers these days — but we travelers can learn from each other.

78 Replies to “Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. We are not flying until there is a vaccine or at least better treatments available. We are in a higher risk category due to age, underlying conditions, etc. We have taken some risks since our state opened back up, and I wonder if we are taking too many.

    1. Fair enough. I actually think that would be a very wise decision for someone in a higher risk category. If I were you, I’d stay home too. “Risk budgeting” is helpful for making sure that one risk doesn’t lead to another…that’s a slippery slope that I have to constantly be on guard about.

  2. My recent experience was exactly the same as yours. I was very impressed at how clean the Delta planes were. Middle seats remained empty and on some flights I had the entire row to myself. Delta staff handed out sanitary wipes for us to wipe down our armrests, tray tables, etc. They collected the wipes and wrappers before we took off. They asked that nothing be put in the seat pockets other than the emergency card and barf bag. In the past as I exited the plane there was all kinds of trash on the floors, not so this summer. Flyers respected the rules and left nothing.

    The seating in the gate area was marked so every other seat was empty unless you were traveling with family. With few flights, many of the gates were not being used. I don’t remember ever seeing such clean airports and planes.

    I’m not flying anywhere near as much as I have in the past, but I have to say I felt very safe in my mask and shield.

  3. thanks for the update. I will be traveling by air for the first time since Corona next week. I also booked a non-stop flight cross country and plan to enter the plane early and sit in the back so fewer people will pass by me. Strange things to have to think about after our free-wheeling ways before. Cheers.

  4. I was relocating across the USA and took one flight in April from Florida to California and then once my house was sold – also a challenge during COVID – back to Florida in July. Felt safe both ways on Southwest with middle seat free and on one flight has entire row. I did get a COVID test before return to FL since I would be living with 87 yo parent. You are right each person has to way risks.

  5. I am flying to Costa Rica this weekend, first trip since the Pandemic. I am in need of major dental work that is just not affordable here in the US. In the past 2 weeks, my flights have been cancelled 3 times, rescheduled once. I am now on my 3rd airlines due to those cancellations (the other 2 airlines were not filling middle seats, this final airline is a full flight).
    I was covid tested today, as Costa Rica will only allow US citizens from designated states and we all have to have negative tests 72 hrs before we board and we must do a written health certification and purchase Costa Rica health insurance specifically covering Covid 19. I am traveling with plenty of hand sanitizers and wipes to wipe everything down, an N95 mask and a face shield for the airport and flight phases of my travel and plenty of standard face shields for other times.
    My dentist in Costa Rica is taking extra precautions as well, meaning, once there, I will live onsite of the clinic and am unable to leave until treatment is done and I am heading back back to the US.
    Am I terrified of this trip, OMG, yes…If it weren’t for the fact that I need the work and I don’t want to remortgage my house for it, I would not go anywhere. When I return, I will be retested for covid and will self quarantine for 14 days. I am 64 years old, in good health, exercise regularly, not overweight, so other than age, I don’t see myself as high risk, but still…..

    1. That’s interesting. I would love to talk to you about having dental work done in costa Rico! Would you please message me so we can talk! Either before or after your trip! I can be reached by cell or text at 405-413-3812. Michelle

  6. Agree with Christine Gage’s post. We flew Delta from Atlanta to Cabo San Lucas on 9/12. Felt very safe. Masks worn from entering the airport to exiting in Cabo. You could remove your mask during the flight when drinking water or eating.

    We’ll fly again with no worries.

  7. Thanks for the report. We were supposed to fly to Rome in February, but since that is appearing less and less likely, we are now kicking around flying to visit our daughter across the country instead. Still not sure I’m ready to get on a plane. Would you mind sharing your mask brand/style? Since my husband would be on the aisle, I may set him up with the “belt and suspenders” as well – that makes good sense to me!

    1. Good question, Tina. We had high-quality (medical grade) N95 masks. These are hard to come by right now, unfortunately. We had purchased a box of them a couple of years ago for an emergency preparedness kit. When the pandemic began, we donated most of them to doctors and others in need, and saved just a couple for emergencies. We decided this was a good time to use them, and were glad we had them. That said, I use KN95s and surgical masks (which are much more readily available) in everyday life and would probably have felt OK with one of those had we not had the N95s. In general I’d aim for the best mask you can get your hands on.

  8. MD here. I also recommend to patients that fly to avoid eating and drinking on the plane because it requires unmasking and increases potential exposure to the virus in a small area. And I discourage travel to anyone with even the most minor illness. I recently was told about a child on a flight that coughed throughout the flight, unnerving the other passengers. Be kind to one another.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly on both points–and thanks for weighing in with some true expertise! Our flight was about four hours and we decided to skip snacks and drinks so we could keep the mask on (and we arrived very hungry).

  9. I’ve recently made the decision not to fly from MA to FL for the fall because I don’t want to take the risk for 4 1/2 weeks. At this point I’m planning to go from January till April since I’ll have a reasonable amount of time. I own a condo there and can maintain my personal space as much or little as I want. I’m 70 years old and in good health. It just seems too risky to go for a month when otherwise I can enjoy the holidays at home. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine not seeing my CA son and his family until there’s a vaccine. Neither of us wants to infect the other.

  10. We plan on our first flight since cutting our England trip short in early March. It’s a short one, LAX to SFO, about an hour in the airplane. Flying SW which is still keeping the middle seats empty. Flying to spend a few days with a friend with risk factors similar to ours(late septuagenarians with few health issues). Will use N95 masks and plenty of wipes and sanitizer. Don’t plan to fly again until January. Normally we’d have been traveling at least 1/3 of the time and were scheduled for a nearly 90 day cruise starting early October. That’s been rescheduled for October 2021, fingers crossed!

  11. I recently flew from DC to Orlando, RT, on SWA, for a 10-day trip. Middle seats were empty and generally a lot of space. However, in the waiting area and on-board there were a few people who insisted upon wearing their masks below their nose. I move further back in the plane each twice and also alerted the flight attendants who gave them new masks and reminded them. I wore an N95 mask fitted by my wife, a nurse, and a face shield, through out the airports and airplane. Ate a good protein breakfast and did not drink much so I could avoid public restrooms in the airport and on the plane. I social distanced while boarding and disembarking although I would have to give the person behind me stink eye now and then.

  12. My wife and I spend winters in AZ. My kids and grandkids live there and we have a new granddaughter we have yet to meet. I fly Delta because they take precautions however I am still nervous. Both of us will be wearing N95 masks and face shields. We also booked seats where we both have our own row. One thing I noticed the last time I flew was there was no social distancing when the plane landed and people got of. If it is that way again, we will stay seated until the plane is empty

  13. Thank you so much for this thorough report — and thank you to the commenters, great perspectives! We were scheduled for a Hawaiian vacation late October, but pushed it out to March, due to quarantine restrictions, etc. I’m hopeful that by then testing, at least, will be reliable and timely. I always get a flu shot each autumn and have had all the pneumonia vaccines, but I’m disinclined toward any COVID vaccine until it has been thoroughly vetted. I love the face shield suggestion and will definitely be ordering a few for any trips we may need to make.

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Cameron. I may be taking a domestic and subsequent international flights in January, still debating this. Being aware of the risk budget factor is a good point.

  15. My husband and I both 71, recently took a flight to Kansas. We had our masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes. Like many others that commented, the airports were not busy and it was easy to socially distance. I want to give a big shout out to my fellow American Airlines passengers. When the plane landed and arrived at the gate, no one jumped out of their seats to grab belongings from overhead bins. Instead, they stayed in their seats and waited for the row in front of them to leave. Definitely a calmer way of leaving the plane.

  16. I have not flown since February but would certainly like to. I am 70 years old and took my first trip to Europe in 2015 at the age of 65; I visited again in 2018; and had to cancel a trip planned for May 2020. When I think about “risk budgeting” I think about how many “healthy” years of travel do I have left? It is difficult to comtemplate but travel is an important part of my quality of life. I have a trip to Hawai’i planned for the end of March 2021 and I’m hoping for a vaccine by then but weighing the costs/benefits of such a long flight I’m sure will still be a tough decision.

  17. I’ve been debating on flying to Boston, something I did monthly per COVID but after reading your article I now know that would be unwise for a number of solid reasons. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  18. My husband and I flew from San Jose, CA to Traverse City MI on July 2, with one layover in Dallas. We chose to fly to our vacation home and stay in that area for, now, 3 months. This is a much safer area than CA. We purchased first class seats, because they had 2 seats to a row. We more N95 masks ( I highly recommend wearing a mask with a filter). We also wore face shields the entire time. We drank little liquids and did not use the airplane toilet. I wiped down both our seats and armrests, tables, etc. with Purell wipes. We self-isolated for 14 days at our destination. I took an antibodies test (negative). We were safe, and we will fly back to California on Nov. 1st, 3 weeks after we get our flu shots in MI.

    1. I would like to point out that wearing a mask with a filter will protect the wearer, but does not protect people around them. Your air is forced out through the vent and is potentially more dangerous to those around you (in terms of aerosols expelled by you) than a non-filter mask. If you are going to wear a mask with a filter, it is suggested that you cover the “vents” with tape.

      1. I’m correcting my previous reply——I meant to say to avoid using masks with exhalation valves or vents. If they do have these, cover the holes with tape. Sorry!

    2. Where or what brand mask
      I only can find ln95
      I Jane several n95 masks but they are old and the elastic breaks

  19. For those that have flown recently, how was security? My biggest concerns with flying are a) the petri dish that is an airport in general, but security specifically and b) the bathrooms.Thank you!

    1. My experience with this tells me that it depends on the airport. The bigger airport we flew out of was anxiety inducing during all encounters between the entry door and the gate. The bathrooms were clean but very busy. No stalls blocked off. No social distancing in the security line.
      The airport we returned from is a smaller airport and it was nearly empty. No lines for security and few people. Most shops and eating establishments were still closed.

  20. I have taken 3 trips, all in August. First trip was to Houston, non stop from Knoxville. I wore a mask and face shield, plane almost empty, this was an Allegiant flight. It was great and I felt really safe. Second flight was from Knoxville to Newark, again very safe and happy with all protocols Allegiant had set forth. On the down side, 2 flights were canceled because not enough people had booked, so that was a pain. After that experience decided to go with United, we are frequent flyers with them. This trip was only 3 weeks after my first re introduction to flying. Oh my! Again flying to Newark from Knoxville via Washington Dulles. Planes were 90% full. Many people on flight wearing mask on neck. Flight attendants walked by several times, never said I thing to them. Yes, they make a general announcement over PA, even threaten to never let you fly again, but obviously it’s not enforced. I spoke to flight attendant on my way out and said I did not feel safe and they needed to do a better job enforcing masks, she said they make the announcement and pretty much that’s it. So, in three short weeks, I would say there are about 3 times more people flying. I’m not sure I’m going to fly again for awhile, just did not feel like the airline cared and really seemed like people are resuming normal travel.

      1. watch the YouTube video; “united breaks guitars”. They are not famous for being overly caring about their customers

  21. We are flying at the end of the week. Were it not for family reasons, we would not be making the trip. Other than age, we don’t have any other issues, but it just seems that with rates on the rise again in many areas, it is more prudent to stay home. We will be bringing sanitizer on board, wearing n95 masks, flying direct and we specifically chose Delta due to their protocols. We also decided to fly First Class with fewer people in close proximity to us.

  22. Our recent experience was very similar to the one you outline with a couple of exceptions.
    We made sure that our family we intended to visit was also ok with the risk. We would have stayed home if they were not comfortable with it.
    We flew out of Denver and the social distancing during the security process and the train to the concourse was pretty much non existent. Our flight was full and a person in the row diagonally in front of us did not keep their mask on. Flight attendant did NOT ask them to replace it. De-planing was done by rows but still not the requisite distancing per CDC guidelines. Our return flight was less crowded and we were able to have empty seats on either side of us. Everyone within 5-6 rows kept masks on. We were seated near the back and waited until everyone else was off before we collected our things to leave. We wore double masks and safety goggles over our glasses.
    With the recent loss of our dog and not seeing our son since the start of the pandemic, we decided it was worth some of our “risk budget” for the mental health points. Not sure I would do it again though. We thought the quick plane trip would be safer than a road trip in the car with all of the stops necessary. Now I’m not so sure. Can’t wait for a safe vaccine.
    And open travel to Europe.

  23. I had booked flights from Sacramento to Wisconsin (airport was MSP) back in January to take my 12 year old twin granddaughters on a vacation. We were going to be staying with friends who were exercising COVID-19 caution. I did weigh things out. I knew from reports that airports and airlines were being very cautious. At the time Delta was doing their best to keep middle seats unoccupied. Masks were mandatory for all. As another person commented, you were given a wipe to go over your seat area once you reached it. No food or beverage service except for a small snack bag given to each person. I felt safe on the trip both going and returning. However, I cancelled the other two trips I had for this year because, as you said, it is more the exception than the rule to hop on a plane right now.

  24. My husband and I had to fly from New Mexico to Ohio to deal with a family situation. We felt the flights and the boarding process were very safe. We both took a window seat and never had to share our row with anyone. The only places we felt nervous were the Denver Airport, it was dirty and very crowded, and the shuttle from the airport to the rental car place in Ohio, which was not was not socially distanced. We flew Southwest. If I had to fly again, I would try to fly nonstop. I don’t plan on flying soon, but if I had to, I would feel reasonably comfortable and safe.

  25. We just flew Delta Sacramento to Minneapolis non stop last week, buying comfort + to have our own row. I felt the airports had adequate spacing and the cleanliness of the plane, given hand wipes, masks, and packed water and snack bags, I felt fine. The flight was not crowded. We are 66 but have no medical issues. One caveat, they would not allow persons with valved masks to use them. We used just simple cloth masks. As an advanced practice OR RN I always carry wipes and hand sanitizer as a matter of course, and we used them liberally. I felt safe. We also parked at the airport to avoid using Uber (our norm).

  26. Thanks for a thoughtful article, I think risk spectrum is a useful way of thinking about all this. As we all know, flying is much safer than driving when it comes to risk of accidents – I am wondering if anyone has made an analysis of added risk from Covid in airports and airplanes vs. the inherent transportation risk of traveling say 500 miles in a private automobile.

    1. I haven’t done any flying but regarding auto travel I drove 3500 miles cross country in late June. I had been very strict prior to leaving with my masks, santizer, social distancing, etc. I hadn’t planned to stay in hotels but traveling with a cat proved it necessary after two nights. I always wore a mask when outside of the car/room. I did not eat in the dining space or linger in the lobby etc. I avoided cities and maintained my distancing. I made it to the destination and did my quarantine again for two weeks. I got a covid test a few days after arrival to be sure (not due to symptoms but to protect others) which was negative. People in the vowel states made fun of me at the pump for wearing masks, meh. I also used 70-90% straight rubbing alcohol in a little spray bottle (I know, maybe overkill but I’ll take some dry skin for the peace of mind. This is religiously used before and after every time I touched something “out in the world”. I avoided cash. I wiped down everything in/out of the car daily. I’d do it again probably over flying – minus most of the hotels. Best hotel was in the Comfort Inn Missoula MT – Choice hotel who took great efforts and gave a letter outlining them. I actually felt relatively safe there. I never felt truly safe but also knew I was probably being hyper vigilant. States I stopped in VT/NH departure to NY (upper), OH, SD, WI, MT, OR – gas every state in between.

  27. We planned to visit the 93 & 91 year old in-laws who needed some help via driving the 2000 miles. We did not feel safe flying. The original plan was to camp our way from Or to WI. Due to a death in the family, camping went out the window and we stayed 2 nights in hotels. One hotel was great and one was not so great. We prepaid and had lots of wipes to wipe things down. We felt that driving was the best option for the least amount of exposure to folks.

  28. I was 2500 miles from home in March when flying became a bad idea. Since .I was visiting family, I was able to stay on in Missoula MT. but by the end of July, I really needed to return home. I am old, (late 80s, but independent) and flying seemed safer than in March and also safer than a several day cross country drive by myself. My flight was on Delta. I wore a mask and used a lot of hand sanitizer. There are no non stop flights from Missoula to Philadelphia, so a short layover in Salt Lake City was necessary. Both flights were uncrowded. I had the row to myself on both planes. People wore masks and behaved as they should. Missoula airport was uncrowded and Philadelphia at midnight was so deserted that it felt spooky. I brought my own food and ate it at a socially distanced table in the Salt Lake City airport. People there were less careful. The tables were distanced, but passers by (not all masked) came close to bumping into it more than once. I was driven to the airport in Missoula and rented a car to get home to Bucks County rather than take the commuter train as I normally do. I’m not in a hurry to fly again, but since all went well, I would do it if I had to.

    1. Hi Corrine, I live in Bucks County as well. Flew to FL September for 3 weeks. Chose American and they were very good on all four segments. Fully enforced the mask requirement and with exception of one flight were given wipes to sanitize. Chose to transfer in Charlotte instead of Atlanta due to smaller size. Booked first class first seat so I could get on last and off first. I hope to fly again in November.

  29. As even before the pandemic, it sounds great if the airport’s empty and the flight’s empty and people are considerate and rule abiding and everything goes like clockwork…but that’s a lot of ifs…so sadly a lot of us who really want to travel somewhere for an important reason will probably miss this relatively quiet (on a lucky day) period and then continue to delay traveling even longer as things get busier and perhaps even less comfortable, as some commenters have already experienced. It could be fine…or it could be a nightmare. So sad.

  30. Last Jan my husband took 2 weeks off work beginning Sep 12th to go to my cousin’s wedding in TX. After Covid I still wanted to go but drive instead of fly. My cousin ended up getting married in Aug at a small family wedding. We decided to drive around the U.S. instead. Starting in WA, we went to OR, then NV. Bryce Canyon was our next stop for 2 nights (celebrated my 60th Birthday here!). Then Denver where we went to a transportation museum where my husband could see the Big Boy Steam Engine (big LoL). Our next stop was Watertown, SD where we saw the Terry Redlin museum. Then took flowers to my G’ma’s grave in Bradley. Next stop Custer State Park. Then MT. Then we went to ID to Farragut State Park where my Dad went to boot camp & Quartermaster school. The Brig is open during the summer with memorabilia from WWII. Then we took a nice drive back home. The places where we weren’t too comfortable were in UT & SD. In UT the locals and servers at restaurants were not wearing masks, more tourists were. In SD, in Watertown they checked our temperature going into the hotel. Restaurants were fine with wait staff. But on the west side of the state it seemed completely different. Locals were not wearing masks in restaurants. Same in ID. We wore our masks, washed our hands frequently, plus had hand sanitizer with us. We were doing all we could and we enjoyed our trip~

  31. I have been on 12 flights since COVID hit with absolutely no fear whatsoever – there is nothing to fear if you have no co-morbidities (diabetes, heart disease, etc.). Hoping Europe opens up soon and allows travel so that we can see its beautiful sights again. We love interacting with people from all over the globe, as we all mutually cherish the gift of freedom that America’s Founding Fathers bestowed upon us with the Greatest Document Ever Written by Mankind – the United States Constitution. We are also grateful for the capitalist economic model we live in that allows us to earn the funds needed to travel.

  32. Thank you for describing your thought process. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of a “risk budget”, that was very useful. We have not yet flown and may not until summer 2021 (if a postponed international trip goes forward – not a given). I believe any risk budget we develop, in addition to taking into account our ages and pre-existing conditions, will have to take into account the destination and the general attitude there towards the pandemic. We have cautiously gone on only one short driving trip within our own state of Arizona. We were in a more rural area (i.e. not the Phoenix/Tucson/Flagstaff metro areas). Our experience was that most people did not pay heed to the guidelines with respect to masks and social distancing. Our hotel advertised that they follow guidelines and require masks, but everyone we saw was ignoring that requirement away from the front desk (which was particularly disappointing at the breakfast “grab and go” – we chose to stay in our rooms with the provided coffee machine and food we had brought with us). One restaurant was very good about a mask requirement and had very nice outdoor seating, we went there twice and felt comfortable; another had a sign on the door that said you accept all liability if you eat there and nobody (customers or staff) were masked (in fact their reviews celebrated that fact), so we did takeout. So, it’s a mixed bag and bottom line it pays to read reviews, and decide for yourself where and whether you’ll be comfortable. All of our activities were outdoors (we’re birders) so our risk on the activities was very low.

  33. It seems very strange that all of the safety “evidence” that we have are stories, no scientific studies or regulatory guidelines. The people who got seriously sick after an airplane trip probably aren’t in any shape to write about it here. Our government jumped in with new safety measures right after the 9/11 attacks. This time, a different administration and the airlines and public are on their own.

    Why haven’t the airlines, who are losing so much money because of fear of the virus, done any studies on viral spread in an airplane cabin to reassure the traveling public that it’s safe? Makes you wonder if such studies have been done and didn’t turn out well. If someone with the virus sits a couple feet behind you, even with mask, it will probably not keep virus in the breath from traveling through the air across other passengers before it gets to a filter.

    What we need is more testing, tracking, and factual studies, both before and after we get a vaccine (which likely will be less than 100% effective). We’re all getting tired of this, but the long-term effects are just starting to come out. And the number of deaths, even of healthy people, are heartbreaking.

  34. We are currently living in England, and we flew from England to Turkey in September, as cases were low in both countries at the time. We even took internal flights within Turkey. The flight from Kayseri back to Antalya was crowded which was a bit uncomfortable. It seemed better than many more hours on a bus. We plan to fly to the states to visit our family soon, as we think it’s better to travel before the holiday season. We know there is risk, but we’ve heard the flights to the US aren’t very crowded. We pray for safe travel and protection from the virus.

  35. We have traveled throughout the US extensively during this, by flying and car. I have never felt unsafe traveling and staying at places. Use common sense and enjoy your life and you’ll have a great time.

  36. We live in Mexico. In July, we flew from Guadalajara to Portland OR (With 7 rescue dogs, btw) and then from Seattle back to Guadalajara. On Volaris. We felt pretty safe. Volaris enforced the masks. Temps taken several times. They also enforced deplaning by row (I hope this becomes a forever thing). Airports were pretty quiet. We were surprised the restaurants at Seatac were closed, so maybe check ahead if you are planning to eat before your flight. We plan to fly again to Portland in a few weeks.

  37. Thanks for sharing. My wife and took in-country flights in May & June with no problems. However, as we have tickets to fly later this month, I’m a tad bit more cautious. Your article was timely and helpful.

  38. I’m taking my first flight since March next week, a direct hop from SEA to OAK to see my brother—then I’ll take Amtrak back, with a roomette. (I am using some flight and train credits left over from BC times.) I agree it’s more sensible to travel now than during the holidays, since the weather is nice and we can meet outdoors. I’ve stayed in motels a few times and will do so again on this trip. I’m probably most nervous about taking transit to/from the airport—also a first since March—and renting a car for a day in CA. Baby steps. I am late 50s and healthy, and I had a great summer of camping trips here in the Northwest. Eager to get back to Europe when it is safe. For climate reasons, I plan to stay for as long as I can next time.

  39. Wow! For a person who is fairly young with no risk factors, you seem especially freaked out about the virus! I take reasonable precautions but I don’t intend to live in fear and in a bubble until the vaccine is here and in widespread use.

    1. I agree with you. I am 74. Have not flown but have taken several Rv trips, eat in various eateries inside and outside. I still have trouble remembering to take a mask. I don’t bother with wipes or hand sanitizer but I do wash my hands. I have had several acquaintances test positive. One who was 85 passed away. But I refuse to live in fear. I will wear my mask as a way to protect others as well as myself. I have not yet seen a study that shows that wearing a mask or using sanitizer prevents spread. At first it was wear gloves to touch anything.

      I am not at all sure that the scientific community has a much better handle on the pandemic than they did in February and March.

  40. I agree 100% with your assessment of risk. I have been a nurse for 38 years. Your risk in a restaurant or bar would be much higher than on an airplane right now. The safe way to open up the economy and not increase the death rate dramatically is to follow the fairly simple guidelines of mask wearing in public, frequent hand-washing/hand sanitizing, avoid touching your face (mouth, nose, and eyes), and staying 6 feet away from others whenever possible. Also, to stay home if you feel sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick. We can get through this by all pulling together and being kinder, less judgmental, and doing the simple things to keep each other safe.

    1. Thanks for the clear advice that should have been repeated millions of times since the beginning instead of denial and refusal. We live in western France and just returned from an 11 day trip to Siena/Tuscany but by car because it seemed too risky to go to Paris by train then fly to Florence even though it’s a 1h45m flight. Italy has fewer cases than France and Siena has very few according to our Rick Steves guide, Anna Piperato (who is a fantastic guide). Compliance with good protocols was superb except by the young ones (high school age). Windows and doors were open in restaurants but the weather was good so soon they will be closed. We felt completely at ease and the warm welcome by the Italians and the joy of being in the area with so few tourists made it so worthwhile to take the small risk. I wish people like you and Cameron were advising the public instead of the political hacks.

  41. On a few flights, you maybe find passengers who plays the non-mask wearing game. We have personally experience it. Taking a hour to eat a snack bag of chips or taking a hour and half to eat a brought on board sandwich.. Drinking beer or wine for a hour, with the cup always half full and getting a second one. Finally, the sleeper, who pull down the mask prior to sleeping. Flight staff are no enforcement cops and the FAA needs to issue temporary masking wear requirements during in-flight air travel. It is the luck of the draw if you are near one of these non-maskers.

  42. Thanks for the article. I flew about four times in the last five months. Twice was on a 4+ hour flight back in June and a couple times in August where I had a layover. While I was very hesitant initially- I was quite impressed with the experience at airports and in-flight. Had great trips. Of course I don’t fall in the “at risk” category.. but nevertheless.. planning my next trip soon!

  43. I am in good health at 61 and hiked almost 20 miles one day in the park. I first went on line to see what United Airlines was doing. They clean the heck out of the planes now United does the misting every night and also does a full wipe down of high touch areas before every flight. One good thing to come out of covid may be higher cleaning standards on planes. I figured if I wear my mask I should be good it has a carbon filter no valve. I read some articles on line the pros say the best spot is the window seat. Did not use restrooms. The heavy flights were from Tampa to Denver United packed us in like caged rats. The lighter flights on the connector to Glacier National in Montana had plenty of room and light everyone was good about masks. Red Lion Inn maids wore masks and did not come into your room once you were their. In Montana everyone wore masks period anywhere inside except while eating. The return flight on United one guy had a value mask the person at check in counter gave him a regular mask to put over it and told him why he needed to put it on, but he walked right on plane without putting it on, that bothered me but sat 12 rows back so oh well. Sad some people think they have a right to be protected and don’t care about others. I miss Europe!!

  44. Hi Cameron, Here in Finland, the press called the airlines, the bus and train companies, and asked how the air circulation happens on each. Interestingly enough, on a plane the air circulation happens side to side, so the air moves sideways, not from front to back or vice versa. On a bus or train, the air moves from front to back and back to front, thus exposing all on this closed space. On a plane, where the air circulates side to side, only the passengers near you, a few rows in front of you and the ones on your sides, get the same air as you. So on a plane, the while planeload does not get infected if there is an infected passenger onboard.

  45. I flew ATL – DEN a few weeks ago w my teenage son. Delta outbound, SW inbound. I am not particularly freaked out about catching the virus, but I felt uncomfortable at the Denver airport. Most places were open w lines. Airport trains were crowded. Rental car shuttle was packed. Gates were crowded. DEN does have a mezzanine level with no shops, so we were able to wait for our departing flight up there, well away from others. ATL is so big, there is just more room to spread out in general. That said, I felt like people in the Denver area were mostly good about mask wearing, even outdoors. And I felt like Delta & SW are doing a good job safety wise. The SW flight attendants in particular don’t play. If your mask isn’t covering your nose, you’re gonna hear about it.

  46. I used to fly at least once a month (often 2-3 times) but haven’t been on a plane since January. Being in a higher risk category, I’m not yet willing to chance it. (Plus, the events that I would fly are not being held.)

    I used to joke that if I was home for more than three weeks, I’d start going stir-crazy. That’s certainly been the case since everything shut down! So last month we decided it was time to get away. Instead of flying, we did a 10-day roadtrip which was great fun. It satisfied our need to get out of the house, and also allowed us to see parts of the country that we hadn’t been to in years.

    We stayed in (Marriott brand) hotels every night, which I felt was low-risk. The rooms were very clean and people wore masks. While on the road, we didn’t eat at restaurants but rather took food to go and ate in the car or we picnicked outside.

    Overall, I think that if you’re itching to travel but feel flying is too risky, a roadtrip is a very safe alternative as long as you take the same precautions that you’d do at home (wear a mask, avoid crowds, etc.)

  47. We flew across Canada in August to see our son. We are at high risk due to age. We did a risk analysis and came up with a number of about 1 in .5 million of dying as a result of getting COVID from the flight. The risk of a plane crashing appears to be about 1 in 6-10 million per flight (from sources I found on the internet), so yes it’s higher risk than just getting on a plane but not that much. Of course there are the associated risks of infecting others and of suffering long term health consequences that are very hard to factor in. I would like to see a better mathematical analysis of the risk than I was able to do. Surely some statistician has done this.

  48. I appreciate seeing this blog/article as well as everyone’s experiences. We are toying with the idea of flying to Arizona from WA state in January for 4 – 5 weeks. We usually go back and forth several times between October and May, this year we will go once if at all. We have our own place there near family (who we will be socially distancing from) and we look forward to just sitting outside on our patio with a beer or margarita in the afternoon watching birds at the bird feeder when it gets so cold/rainy/dreary here in the winter. The flight is under 3 hours – I don’t think I’d be ready to do more than that just yet. Even though we’re both in the neighborhood of 70 yo, the flight itself seems reasonably low risk; our bigger concern is getting to/from the airport. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of Uber or imposing on friends, but parking for a month or so isn’t really feasible. Oh, well – we have some time to figure this out and make our decision.

  49. Cameron,

    I understand your fear and why you hesitated to fly. I’ve flown during the pandemic, and it is only light risk. Everyone is required to wear a mask, or you are removed. The HEPA filters in modern jets filter the cabin air, which is pressurized, and half that air is vented overboard, the other half is sent back thru the filters and recirculated. The aircraft have never been cleaner, everyone wipes down seat belts, tray tables and other things people touch. Noone at row 10 will touch seat belt buckles or tray tables at row 20. Seriously, it’s perfectly safe—as long as everyone follows the rules. Go ahead—TRAVEL, like Rick says!

  50. We flew from Philly to Orlando and out of West Palm in June. No problem. Our friends flew to Philly from Raleigh in July…no problem. We are flying to Orlando and out of West Palm this month and from Philly to Asheville and out of Raleigh in November. I feel like the airlines are taking extra precautions and if you wear your mask and wash you hands along with staying away from people as much as humanly possible, it’s ok. I probably wouldn’t be flying if I had health issues however.

  51. We had reservations to fly from Phoenix to Washington Natiional airport on Sept 1 — in order to attend a funeral at Arlington Nat’l Cemetery. We are ages 78 & 80 – one of us has serious lung issues. This flight had 1 stop-over in Dallas. We finally decided that flying (even though it was Southwest, with an empty middle seat) just wasn’t safe for us — our risk calculations included the security lines, the stop=over in Texas, & the fact that we would probably need wheelchair assistance in D.C. on arrival. Ultimately our own health vulnerabilities became the final factor — we just could not risk our own health with so many unknowns. We still believe there are too many unknowns in airports & passenger behavior.

  52. I have flown. To Florida for an 8 day visit with a large group of family from all over the U.S. to our annual time share spot. 50 of us there. I had originally booked a flight with a single layover but the airlines switched me to have two layovers. We were on the beach, in restaurants and in cars together. All ages from 5 to 86. We had an amazing week. No one got sick. This was in June. My parents, age 79 and 86 flew for that trip and have since flown to Colorado with no issues. They are proceeding with the belief that they would rather die from living rather than live alone. We cant stop living. This virus isnt going anywhere any time soon. Our time on earth is limited and we will never get this time back nor are we promised a tomorrow. This isnt to say dont be cautious. Protecting ourselves and others the best we can while still living life is the key.

  53. Completely disagree that you have less risk if you’re younger or an athlete. We have all seen the recent news stories of young athletes with no medical issues dying of CVID19. Here in my my town a young man who biked hours a day no medical issues got sick with COVID, died less than 48hrs later. He had biked the morning he came down with symptoms very healthy. Youth and athleticism are no protection against this virus we’re still struggling to understand. No one should take this deadly virus lightly, not should we ignore the lifelong disabilities survivors are suffering that we’re still learning about. This virus has only been around for months! We don’t even have case studies of long-term effects. We do know many have permanent heart, lung, and organ damage. I don’t like that you suggest young athletes have less risk. Not at all! The virus has killed all types of people including young healthy athletes.

  54. I’ve flown twice in the last couple of months. Roundtrip to Phoenix on Delta and round trip to Portland (OR) on Southwest. These are my favored carriers, but especially now with their empty middle seat policies. I felt that Delta seems a little more careful with their cleaning than southwest, and I liked their policy where they fill up the back of the plane first to reduce people walking past other people. Most of the airports were relatively empty. However, Atlanta (connecting flight) was quite crowded because a storm had delayed a lot of flights. I didn’t feel too safe there, especially riding the shuttle between gates.
    I think it would be better if they actually took your temperature before you got on the plane, rather than just asking you to fill out a questionnaire when you check in. The woman next to me (with a seat between) on my portland – denver leg was obviously not feeling well.

  55. Please, take my personal experience as just one man’s story: I know an airline stewardess who asymptomatic and went from her job to visit her family and infected them all. Then she tested and found she was positive. We barely missed being infected by them. This was pretty compelling in causing us to avoid airline travel.

  56. Thanks for sharing your experience. We are not flying until there is a vaccine or at least better treatments available. We are in a higher risk category due to age, underlying conditions, etc. We have taken some risks since our state opened back up, and I wonder if we are taking too many.

  57. Cameron, I think you hit it on the head when you mentioned “risk budget.”

    I’ve flown several times (after a six month hiatus from March-September) but as I am a frequent flyer I was able to attempt some “budgeting” on my own.

    First, choose an airline that’s serious about this and the last one left is Delta. There is no foolproof, risk-free environment for anything but American and United’s “pack ’em in” approach is far too risky.

    Then choose off-peak flights and use seat maps to try to book flights that are less full. You may be able to spread out further on board.

    Avoid crowded airport times and locations. As a Sky Club member I can retreat into the club and not linger long at the gate.

    Choose your destinations carefully. This is the time of year where I might be in Florida photographing birds. Not this year. Not with the outbreaks there, the lack of serious attention by state government and then we have the Superspreader Bowl in Tampa.

    Limit contact opportunities. If you rent a car join a club where you can do much of the work online ahead of arrival. Same for hotels. Use Tripadvisor and other resources to stay at places that are serious about Covid precautions and skip those that aren’t. Shoot for a room with a microwave and fridge.

    Bring wipes. Wipe down your seating area in the plane. Wipe down the rental car and your hotel room. I usually make a groceries and supply run to Wal-Mart or Target where I’ll buy a new pillow ($3-4) to use at the hotel and bring a pillow case from home. Get food you can store and heat in your hotel room.

    Be careful at your destination. The National Parks — where I photograph a lot — are swamped with visitors now. Go at less crowded times and if the crowds are too deep then walk away. And carry hand sanitizer, of course.

    Of course, keep your distance, wear your mask and if you’re ill, stay home.

    Finally, if you don’t want to fly — or fly as much — you can still drive places if you take appropriate precautions. I’ve taken several day or two-day trips a few hours away from Chicago.

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