Airplanes haven’t been significant vectors of virus spread even though passengers are indoors in groups for sustained periods. You might expect flights to be superspreading events, but they haven’t been.
That’s likely because of a combination of factors: strong air filtration (on aircraft larger than 50 seat regional jets), people aren’t talking very much, they’re all facing forward. Masks now help, too, when people follow the guidance.
Airlines have cut back inflight food and beverage offerings both for social distancing (to reduce passenger – flight attendant contact) and for cost savings. I’ve written that post-pandemic I don’t expect inflight product investment to return right away, as airlines work to repair their balance sheets after borrowing unprecedented sums to stay in business.
There’s still some scaled back meal service on longer flights, and in theory those flights are even more of a risk because of their duration – the time passengers are in an enclosed metal tube potentially with asymptomatic spreaders of virus. The judgment there is that some food is necessary on longer flights.
The Flight Detective argues that removing food from planes is an overreaction, and that food from a flight attendant is no riskier than food from a grocery store or restaurant takeout.
Sure, I get it, you’re not interacting with an actual person, but the item is. It is likely several people have had their fingers on the thing you’re taking home to put in your fridge or cupboard.
Not a great analogy? How about restaurant take-away? When you buy your food, someone in the place comes out with your bag and hands it to you, then you go home and eat it. The only difference on a flight is that you’d eat it where you are sitting.
Is that right? I’m not so sure in my own case. I’ve continued to follow some protocols for packages and food entering my home.
- Packages stay in the garage before coming inside the house, and I wash my hands after touching them.
- I do contactless grocery pickup. Everything initially goes in the garage, or the refrigerator/freezer in the garage. Wash hands. I don’t wipe everything down, but I wait for the virus to degrade if it’s on any of the packaging. I’m fortunate to live in Texas with a big garage, and to have inherited an extra refrigerator from the sellers when I bought the house. My routine wouldn’t look like this if I still lived in a DC-area condo.
- Restaurant pickup doesn’t wait to be eaten, but any virus in the food was likely killed during cooking and COVID-19 isn’t a food borne virus anyway. To the question of packaging, I wash my hands after touching the packaging and disinfect the counter surface where the packages sat.
You’re on a plane, airlines are handing out sanitizer wipes and you can (and should) bring your own sanitizer – the TSA will let you carry 12 ounces through security checkpoints. But actual washing hands? Avoids the lavatories. Those surfaces aren’t being cleaned between uses. And the door handles (on both sides)?
SARS-CoV-2 spread is largely via respiratory droplets. Most of my personal life precautions are probably over the top as a result. Still, they’re low cost approaches that don’t take much extra effort.
Similarly having extra hands on food seems like a mistake. However there are better solutions than no food at all. And airlines are going to have to differentiate the premium cabin experience to recover, or else they’ll be unable to sell premium fares.
In fact a strong inflight experience is even more compelling now when,
- So few concessions are open in airports
- Airlines are going to have to compete for business, with fewer passengers than there have been in recent years
I think about the Kosher meals I’ve ordered on American Airlines. They come completely wrapped from the caterer. The flight attendant presents them wrapped, because it’s clear then that they haven’t been altered in any way.
The entree is heated in the galley oven, and then presented to me still in its foil packaging.
Inside individual items are wrapped as well.
That’s a lot of packaging, to be sure, but there’s not a lot of hands on the food. And the current tray setup includes hand sanitizer wipes, and again bring your own. It does seem possible to limit hands on food while still serving food, airlines have been doing it for years.