How Safe Are Airports and Airplanes During an Outbreak?

It’s less risky than you may think, especially if you take some basic precautions.

How Safe Are Airports and Airplanes During an Outbreak?

Those seat pockets need a wipe down.

Photo by Have a nice day Photo / Shutterstock

Can flying make you sick? That question has taken on new urgency since the coronavirus surfaced. After all, fears of crowded and confined spaces like airplanes typically spike during the winter, and this is beyond any normal flu season. In recent days, passengers and crew members wearing face masks have been a common sight at airport terminals, and a few major hubs like Singapore’s Changi have started scanning passengers for high temperatures.

But aviation officials say there’s nothing inherently risky about air travel as long as passengers take a few basic precautions. As previous outbreaks of diseases such as SARS have shown, you’re probably less likely to catch a bug sitting on a plane than, say, in a movie theater or other enclosed spaces.

“The risk of catching any illness on a flight is generally quite low,” says Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents some 290 airlines worldwide. “Of course, there’s a chance of catching something any place people congregate, but less so on a plane, because the air is filtered and refreshed constantly, with systems similar to what you’d find in a hospital operating room.”

Infectious disease specialists say that except for those seated close to you, a sick passenger elsewhere on the plane isn’t a threat. Cabin air circulates vertically—reducing the odds that you’d catch something from a flier 10 rows back. The bigger risk from air travel, they say, is from coming into contact with germs on surfaces like armrests or tray tables, or from crowding into tight spaces, like the scrum outside the boarding gate.

“I’ve always said that the dirtiest place on a plane is that seatback pocket,” says Dr. Rajiv Narula, a travel medicine specialist who runs the International Travel Health Consultants clinic in New York City. He advises patients heading on a trip to bring a supply of Lysol wipes and plenty of hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, and to wipe down any surface they can find. You might get some strange looks, he says, but you’re more likely to get sick from touching a lavatory door that’s been opened frequently than from airborne germs.

“Of course, there’s a chance of catching something any place people congregate, but less so on a plane, because the air is filtered and refreshed constantly, with systems similar what you’d find in a hospital operating room.”

Airlines say they give their airplanes frequent and thorough scrubbings, despite the occasional wad of gum you may find sticking to your seat. “Lavatories are cleaned, floors are spot cleaned, and visible trash is removed from seat pockets on all flights,” says Curtis Blessing, a spokesman for American Airlines, adding that if there’s time, tray tables and galleys also get the treatment. For flights longer than five hours, which pose a greater threat of catching a bug, jets will get a “deeper level of cleaning” that includes scouring all lavatories and surfaces and vacuuming floors.

Carriers in the Asia Pacific region may go further. Singapore Airlines recently detailed the steps it’s taking in a note to passengers, including subjecting all flights from mainland China to a “disinfectant fogging” process, and on some flights, curtailing some inflight amenities such as the hot towel service and post-take-off drinks. All cabin crew and pilots get preflight temperature scans, the airline says.

11 major international airports, including San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, are selectively screening some passengers from certain destinations (mainly China). Most international travelers arriving in the U.S. won’t be affected. The international airports currently screening, and handing out information cards, are:

  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL)
  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  • John F. Kennedy (JFK)
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  • Dallas / Forth Worth (DFW)
  • Dulles (IAD)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
  • San Francisco (SFO)
  • Detroit (DTW)
  • Daniel K. Inouye / Honolulu (HNL)

Dr. Narula says the best advice for avoiding any illness, not just coronavirus, is to assiduously avoid contact with sick people and to keep hands clean. While that first part may be harder—many sick people don’t exhibit symptoms—“frequent hand washing is the main thing,” he says. Make sure you use soap and warm water and take 20 seconds to finish the job (one flight-attendant trick is timing it by singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice).
As to whether you should pack a mask in your carry-on, most medical experts say that unless you get the industrial grade N95 version, a mask won’t protect you from other people’s illnesses; it’ll just prevent your germs from spreading. At airports, a better strategy is to take advantage of hand sanitizer pumps that are posted at many terminals these days and to avoid getting too close to fellow fliers in the inevitable mob scene that’s the boarding process.

Above all, travel experts say that based on what we know now, there’s no need to avoid flying. Dr. Narula says he’s booked a spring vacation to Grenada and has every intention of going. Unless your destination is one of the few on the Centers for Disease Control’s watch list, he says, “There’s no point in staying home.”

>> Next: Need to Change Your Plans Due to Coronavirua? These Are Your Options

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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