The world isn’t ready for us to start traveling, but some of us are required to travel by plane for work or may require a sudden trip for a family emergency.
So, what are you to do if you find yourself having to travel by plane during this time of uncertainty?
If you do decide to travel there are several steps you can take to lower the risk of transmission. Here are essential tips for air travel during Covid-19. They’ll help you plan and navigate your next trip by plane and give you tips to help keep yourself and others safe.
Check travel restrictions
Check state and local health department guidelines for both my departure and arrival destinations for up-to-date information and travel guidance.
Travel restrictions can also include COVID-19 testing before arrival at your destination and mandatory quarantine requirements upon your return. Be sure you fully understand what is expected of you before and after your trip.
Here are a few examples of state travel restrictions:
Travelers to Puerto Rico must go to the online travel portal and then scroll down to the online travel declaration. Here they must fill out the information and upload negative molecular covid test results (the rapid test is not accepted) which were taken no more than 72 hours before departure.
Follow the guidelines, check back for updates as your trip gets closer, and prepare to be flexible during your trip as restrictions and policies change frequently.
Booking your flight
To see what airlines are doing to protect passengers and their specific travel requirements, check their individual websites and find out which carriers are not fully booking flights.
Some airlines are keeping the middle seats empty, others are selling less than 70% of the seats on any flight, while a few are waiving fees and are giving travelers the opportunity to book a different flight should it get filled to capacity. Studies indicate that a window seat is the safest and a seat toward the front of the plane will allow you to board last and disembark first.
I personally feel that some distance is safer than none and the further away you can be from another passenger on a plane, the better.
What to pack
When it’s time to pack for your trip, be sure to take these safety travel essentials: face masks, disinfectant wipes with at least 70% alcohol, and 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Travelers can pack one 12-ounce container of hand sanitizer in a carry-on bag.
If you want, consider purchasing a face shield to wear in addition to your mask, you won’t be the only one at the airport or on the flight.
What to expect at the airport
You must have a mask on to enter the airport. DO NOT enter the airport if you are sick. Consider getting the TSA app that provides airline passengers with 24/7 access to the most frequently requested airport security information.
Because air travel involves spending time in security lines and airport terminals, you will be in close contact with other people. Be sure to maintain a distance of 6 feet between you and others and always keep your mask on.
Limit contact with frequently touched surfaces, such as handrails, elevator buttons, and kiosks. Consider purchasing a no-touch door opener which is particularly useful in restrooms.
The TSA has made a number of changes to the screening process due to Covid-19. In addition to enhanced cleaning procedures, TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves, practice social distancing, and to change their gloves after each pat-down.
Plastic shields at the document checking podiums and luggage drop off locations have been installed.
What travelers can expect when checking in for a flight
Instead of handing boarding passes to TSA officers, travelers should place passes (paper or electronic) directly on the scanner and then hold them up for inspection. This includes your ticket as well as your license or passport.
The TSA officer will ask you to pull your mask to the side for identification purposes. If you exhibit symptoms of illness such as a cough or difficulty breathing, you will be required to leave the checkpoint immediately.
Tips during screening
During the screening process, it’s in your best interest to place food items in a separate clear plastic bag and place it in its own bin for screening. Separating food from carry-on bags lessens the likelihood that screeners will need to open bags and touch your food items for inspection.
Personal items such as keys, wallets and phones should be placed in carry-on bags instead of directly in the bins. This reduces the handling of these items during screening.
Be mindful that everything you touch during the screening process puts you at risk. Up until this point, I was comfortable with all the protocols the airport had in place. However, once I realized I had to touch the bin, I felt it was here they dropped the ball because no one was sterilizing the bins after each use.
I recommend having a sanitizing wipe in each hand, picking up the bin with the wipes only, and pushing the bin with the wipe as you move it toward the scanner. You can also line the entire bin with a large clear garbage bag so that it covers all touchpoints.
This may seem a bit stringent to some, but with so many people touching the bin, I personally rather take extra steps toward being safe. The bins may pose a lower threat than fellow passengers, but that danger compounds when many people are touching the same surfaces. Regardless of what you do, be sure to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands before and after going through screening.
Food & Beverage at the airport
Most of the food kiosks and restaurants at airports are closed. At JFK only one kiosk near the gate was open selling baked goods and beverages. The safest option is to eat at home before you arrive at the airport.
If for whatever reason you are going to have to eat during your journey purchase a face shield. The face shield will allow your face to remain covered while you have a quick bite to eat.
Consider bringing a sandwich or other non-liquid type food item from home and eat it at the airport rather than on the plane. You don’t want to be taking your mask off on the airplane in such close quarters. Find an area away from crowds, after you’ve gone through security.
Ask for a different seat
When you arrive at your gate, ask if your flight is full. You may want to switch to another flight with fewer people.
Ask if you’re sitting next to another passenger and if you are, find out if they can move you to an empty row or a row where the middle seat is free.
Your goal is to board last and disembark first, so in my opinion the closer you can sit toward the front of the plane, the better.
You may have to pay more if the only available seat is in the premium section. That is a decision you will have to make based on your comfort level and budget.
At the gate
The area around your gate can become particularly crowded. On my last flight, people distanced themselves, but it was still a large number of people in a relatively constricted area.
Consider finding a different gate waiting zone that is near yours, but is without people. Be mindful of your boarding time as you may not hear the boarding announcements associated with your flight if you are too far away.
What you can do on the plane to stay safe
Wipe everything down
Deep cleaning and aircraft fogging seem to be the norm these days. I felt safer, however, utilizing a sanitizing wipe before I sit down. I wiped the seat belt, armrests, media screen, drop-down tray, window shade, and the airflow regulator that’s over-head.
Upon boarding a recent flight out of JFK, I was provided a packet that contained two antibacterial wipes and two packets of hand sanitizer. I greatly appreciated that, even though I brought my own.
Adjust the overhead air nozzle
If there is an overhead air nozzle, adjust it to point straight at your head and keep it on full. Studies show it creates an air barrier that creates turbulence, blocking potentially harmful particles and forcing them to the ground faster.
Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, it is believed that most viruses don’t spread easily on flights. However, crowded flights make social distancing difficult and the boarding and disembarkation processes prove to be the most challenging.
What to expect on the plane
The flights I have been on had decent boarding procedures, requiring passengers to board from back to front. People, for the most part, remained socially distanced.
All U.S. airlines have compulsory mask requirements for air travel, for both crew and passengers. Face coverings need to cover the nose and mouth, be made of at least two layers of tightly-woven fabric.
Those with an exhalation valve or vent, as well as neck gaiters and bandanas, are not considered acceptable face coverings. The airline will require you to have an acceptable face covering before you set foot on the plane.
Even though there’s a mask mandate on the plane, it doesn’t always mean people comply.
Flight attendants failed to notice the mask-less, coughing passenger seated behind me. Panic arose and fears of catching COVID flooded my mind. My anger boiled as her cough grew louder and louder.
The attendants walked by several times, not noticing, but I noticed, and over forty-five minutes had gone by. I discreetly went to the front of the plane and informed an attendant about the situation, providing the seat number and row. I had also noticed passengers going to the restroom unmasked. The flight attendants were not monitoring the passengers throughout that trip.
Why did I wait so long to tell someone? You shouldn’t either. If this happens to you tell a flight attendant immediately. Don’t wait and don’t take matters into your own hands. The person may get combative.
On another flight, the attendants diligently kept a watchful eye on all passengers. They stood at the front and the back of the plane and made sure passenger’s masks stayed on throughout the trip.
Food & Beverages
Airlines are limiting food and beverage service to reduce contact between the flight attendants and passengers. On a recent flight, I received a tiny bottle of water and two snacks in a small zip lock bag. You’re allowed to briefly remove your mask but only while actively eating. I saved my snack and ate it after I left the airport.
If you must go to the restroom don’t be tempted to remove your mask. Restrooms on aircraft are small and not well ventilated. Enter and leave as quickly as possible and please wash your hands.
Most of us have experienced the moment a plane comes to a stop at its destination. Passengers leap up, grab their luggage out of the overhead bins, and hover over the innocents who are seated. The aisle becomes quickly blocked with a line of passengers, oftentimes close enough for you to feel their breath.
Imagine this happening during a COVID_19 pandemic? Well, it did. That exact unpleasant scenario happened to me just a few weeks ago. There was absolutely no social distancing and no effort made by the airline to prevent it from happening.
Needless to say, I contacted the carrier by phone, through Twitter, and expressed my dissatisfaction in a survey I received from them the next day. They told me my information would be passed on to corporate.
On another flight, I’m happy to report, disembarkation was done correctly. As the plane made its way to the gate and the passengers started popping up out of their seats, flight attendants made stern announcements directing passengers to remain seated.
Small groups of rows, starting with the front of the plane to the back, were called. This made for an organized, socially distanced, and safe disembarkation.
When you do start traveling again, can you be confident that every measure is being taken to help you have a safe and COVID-free flight?
My answer is no.
Every airline has different protocols. Even within each carrier, rule enforcement depends upon how well the flight attendants are trained to enforce the rules. My flights were all on the same carrier and my air travel experiences were vastly different on each.
You need to be an active participant by minimizing your risks while you’re traveling. Call the airlines and ask questions, bring your own hand sanitizer and wipes, always wear a mask, and be mindful of others.
Because air travel hasn’t been consistent, going the extra mile and traveling smart will allow you to reduce your risks. When you’re done with your trip, take a deep breath when you get outside, and let out a sigh of relief.
Be sure to read how to satisfy your wanderlust without leaving home.