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.