Flying Just Isn’t a Big Coronavirus Risk

A couple of months ago I wrote that it’s ok for some people to consider traveling again. That’s mostly limited to domestic trips though you can visit much the Caribbean, the Maldives, and a handful of other international destinations as well.

If you’re older, and especially with confounding conditions, it makes sense to take extra precautions at least until we see better treatments for COVID-19 (probably fall) or a vaccine (2021).

At the end of March I wrote that travel isn’t as risky as many people think it is. There was tremendous backlash, but it’s proven to be correct: while clusters of people with the virus have traveled on planes, there haven’t been COVID-19 case clusters tied to virus spread on planes.

We need to stop acting like it’s February or March, when we didn’t know much about spread of the virus. As the CDC says, “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” Not everything is equal risk, for instance we now know that,

  • Superspreaders are responsible for much of the cases, not as much as with SARS or MERS, but it’s still 10%-20% of people causing around 80% of infections. This may be a combination of the people themselves (viral load and emission of respiratory droplets) and their behaviors (coming into contact with more people, close contact when they do). Limiting superspreader events is key to keeping the virus under control.

  • It spreads far more through respiratory droplets, and perhaps becomes aerosolized, than from surfaces. A lot of our cleaning regimens probably have relatively low return, though I continue to do them myself. I want enhanced airline and hotel cleaning to continue even after the pandemic.

  • Children can get the virus but seem not to spread it very much. Kids usually get it at home, and don’t spread it to other kids in schools. See for instance here, here, here, here, here I could go on. Kids don’t have the same ACE-2 receptors in their lungs yet that the virus attaches to, and tend to have lower viral loads. I don’t worry about risk to my daughter, nor about the likelihood that she gets me very sick.

To manage the impact of the virus we want to limit large gatherings, especially prolonged indoor gatherings. Bars, gyms, and office buildings worry me. I’m not going to be worried about sending my two year old daughter to school.

I don’t love hotels where air circulates between rooms, but planes don’t worry me because we just haven’t seen spread on planes. (My concern about hotels is a belief I don’t have much evidence for, beyond residential case clusters in Hong Kong.)

People come on flights sick, or they develop symptoms after travel, but the plane itself doesn’t appear to be a vector of spread. Wear a mask, HEPA air filtration helps, I’d avoid small (e.g. 50 seat) regional jets that may not have the same air filtration.

Japan took almost a Sweden-like approach with less testing, but people wore masks and clamped down on the virus. Wear your masks and agitate for more access to better masks, it’s an abomination that by now there aren’t good medical and respirator masks available to the public at large, with plenty for health care providers.

And of course what you do when you travel matters a lot. If you’re spending time at indoor events with lots of people for long periods of time, is that travel that’s a risk or your own behavior?

Now, where you go matters. I’d choose someplace where the virus isn’t spreading as much as where you’re coming from. Americans want to go to Europe, Europeans shouldn’t be coming to the U.S. Restrictions on non-U.S. residents entering the country if they’ve been to Europe and China are dumb at this point.

Stay home if you have been exposed to someone with the virus, if you have any symptoms yourself, or if you’re in an especially at-risk group. Stay home if your city is experiencing a significant outbreak, if you have the virus and don’t realize it you probably won’t spread it on the plane but you might spread it while you’re out and about (whether you’re at home or in another city).

As the virus keeps spreading in the United States we need to avoid risky activities, while continuing to engage in less risky ones. What we know, after several months, is that air travel seems to be among the less risky ones.

Despite that business travel isn’t going to come back but leisure travel certainly can. Just know your bigger risks are in the airport, and at security checkpoints, than in the air. For most of us, though, we don’t need to fear air travel.

The biggest reason not to fly isn’t about flying, it’s about getting stuck wherever you go. If you do contract the virus while you’re traveling you’ll need to stay put and quarantine which can be costly and inconvenient, not to mention that quality of medical care in some destinations may be more top of mind than usual.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You make some valid points although what I’m really waiting for is for George to say how he just visited 13 countries in 3 days last week.

  2. Gary – respectfully, you are wrong about business travel coming back second. I am encountering a lot more business travelers than leisure on flights. Certainly, there are steps to take to do a video conference in lieu of the real thing, but families still need to make moves and, speaking just for the 2 million military members, that is being done this summer although a bit later than normal. I have had to travel twice in the last month to visit sites and expect that to only accelerate in July/ Aug.

  3. Glenn, I am not sayimg there is zero business travel. But it cannot return until offices are open receiving visitors, and there is effectively no meetings and conventions business now.

  4. omg, 2 already!? where has the time gone? Aside from the “terrible two” stereotype, it’s the delightful time of spending all day with “whassat?”

    Congrats

  5. The full quote from the CDC page that you excerpted:
    “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

    That doesn’t sound conclusive to me.

  6. @swag – It means you could be right next to someone on a plane – as you could anywhere – but you shouldn’t worry about aerosolized vurus spreading in the cabin. So the passengers right by you would have to be shedding enough live virus to infect you – it is not like being in a large indoor group setting which is otherwise considered high risk.

  7. Given that the pandemic is currently out of control in the US and getting worse its simply irresponsible of people to advocate for non-essential travel. You would think someone from Texas would know better given they screwed up and now are heading back towards a shutdown. The US just broke a daily record for new infections in a single day today. Now is not the time for non-essential travel. Sorry if that disrupts your travel blog but that is the reality. I’m tired of watching friends and co-workers die from this virus because people can’t follow simple rules and others minimize it.

  8. @Bill – did you actually read the post though?

    “Stay home if your city is experiencing a significant outbreak, if you have the virus and don’t realize it you probably won’t spread it on the plane but you might spread it while you’re out and about (whether you’re at home or in another city).”

    The point remains, and I think is an important one, the virus doesn’t seem to do much spreading *on airplanes*. That doesn’t mean people with the virus don’t bring it from one place to another.

  9. “As the CDC says, “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.””

    You mean the same CDC that said wearing a mask wasn’t necessary and then said it was? That CDC?

    I think I want to wait and watch people pack planes and be the canaries in the coal mine first before I fly. If there isn’t a spread risk that will be born out pretty quickly. March data isn’t saying a lot because by the end of March flights were already flying near empty.

  10. Gary, I’m having a hard time understanding why a crowded plane is safer than an equally dense crowded bar or restaurant. Because a bar doesn’t use hepa filters?

    It’s not the HVAC system’s recirculated air that’s getting people sick in bars or restaurants, it’s contact with the aerosol of the folks around them.

  11. I’m not Bill, but I did read the post, twice, and I am not convinced. I’ll be avoiding aircraft for at least the rest of 2020, perhaps longer. I won’t be dining at restaurants either.

  12. Realizing this is a travel blog, the content is on point. The message should still be . . . avoid all non-essential travel at this time. Period. The US has not contained this virus. Unnecessary travel will ultimately exacerbate the further spread.

  13. I work for a corporation with 100k employees and ALL company travel is suspended through October.

  14. In the US, the only real place where they’re cramming airplanes full of people, of course there are no clusters, because the US largely does not trace people so clusters are allowed to form unseen. How else would COVID-19 be winning the war?

    In the rest of the world airplanes are generally empty, so no spread.

    But noroviruses (R0 = 2) have been proven to have spread on airplanes https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/53/6/515/357038. So yes, it’s highly likely that SARS-CoV-2 (R0 = 5.7) does spread on planes, which is something that epidemiologists believe it does (only 20% of them would fly on an airplane this summer, and this was BEFORE the uptick! https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/08/upshot/when-epidemiologists-will-do-everyday-things-coronavirus.html)

    Incidentally, scientists have been right about COVID-19 from the beginning. It’s time to start listing to them instead of industry-driven pseudo babble or politicians.

    These bloggers make money on travel, and don’t care about the economy outside of their pocketbook (just look at what’s happening to Miami and Texas due to their not following science!).

  15. @Gary
    > the real evidence is there haven’t been clusters tied to plane travel.

    That only reinforces the fact that the US (the only place in the world where planes are routinely flying at high capacity during the infection) doesn’t do contact tracing.

    Take Austin for example. How come they can’t link a SINGLE of their 5,707 cases yesterday to a store, bar, church or whatever? If they can’t even do that, how do you expect them to link them to flights?

    Gary, you’re misusing data. Please stop harming people. There’s enough of that from politicians.

  16. So if I understand gleff correctly, flying is ok as long as one avoids the airport and the TSA checkpoint? Given that the average domestic flight is not all that long, I’d wager most people spend as much time, if not more, at the airport than they do on the plane.

    That aside, I actually agree with Gary’s basic premise. COVID aside, if the plane itself were a general viral transmission vector, I would expect that sometime over the last couple of decades, we would have seen at least one headline talking about a plane load of people getting sick, not unlike a cruise ship norovirus. Yet we haven’t. Why?

    Although, I’m going to be honest… as long as masks are required in the airport and on planes, I’m probably not taking a plane ride. Not because I believe the flight to be a high risk activity, but because I just don’t find wearing my mask for several hours to be all that comfortable. If I have a choice between hustling through an airport and sitting through a multi-hour flight with a mask on or staying home, I’m probably going to choose to stay home.

  17. Also air in plane will move downwards so towards floor! And please this European wants to come to . So please don’t assume we don’t want to come. We are not allowed into the country. But as soon as this changes. I will do my road trip which we canceled. And yes that will include Arizona. Las Vegas and so on.

  18. @dan. I agree about the masks. Same feeling here. Also the down sizing in premium cabinets makes me think twice. I mean Normal food, drink and lounge should be there again. Masks outside also don’t make sense. Distancing will help. Masks can help where this is not an option. Although here they allow cotton masks without filters . So those will do nothing at all

  19. @Joelfreak – no, it really doesn’t make that case, in fact it seems to conclude the opposite. And the only indications offered are that other viruses – not SARS-CoV-2 – can spread on planes, and not very much

    (“A 2018 study by researchers from Emory University in Atlanta attempted to model how passengers and crew moved about an aircraft, and how that might affect the transmission of infectious diseases.

    “A droplet-mediated respiratory infectious disease is unlikely to be directly transmitted beyond one metre from the infectious passenger. Thus, transmission is limited to one row in front of or in back of an infectious passenger,” the researchers concluded.”)

  20. As others have said, Gary’s understanding of this is incomplete at best

    We haven’t found clusters from airports, but we also have not looked

    Massachusetts has arguably the best contact tracing program in the country
    They can’t even get a hold of 60% of persons of interest

    My state is the same. Half of all cases are of unknown transmission

    Texas Arizona and Florida have nearly non existent programs

    We won’t know until we can trace better

    It’s similar to how difficult it was to prove that presymptomatic people can spread this infection
    Do you know what case finally proved it? One worker passed a salt shaker to another in Germany

    So if one worker can pass this to another with a SALT SHAKER you know the person next to you, touching you for hours, can pass to you

    The question is not if, but how much

  21. @Gary traveling in about 10 days with a 16 month old. We have a seat for him but wondering if we should use a car seat for him or try the CARES travel restraint system? flight is cross country from DC to San Diego early evening. Txs!

  22. @Ekrem – does he sit up and will he stay seated? at 16 months I’d often take my daughter, get her a seat, but she didn’t really want to stay still so my wife or I would be holding her much of the flight [basically treating her like a lap infant, but the extra seat gave us more room to maneuver].

  23. @JRMW – we HAVE looked for clusters on flights though, all over the world. this isn’t just about US state level contact tracing.

  24. @gary thanks for the reply. Yes he’ll sit up, but as for if he’ll stay seated no. The last time we flew with him was when he was 11 months old and he was easier to have as a lap child but now he’s bigger so that’s why we got him his own seat. Also hoping that it’ll be easier to have the extra space. Did you bring the car seat on the plane?

  25. “…we need to avoid risky activities, while continuing to engage in less risky ones.”

    OK, but you are completely ignoring the necessity of activities. For many people, going to a medical appointment is probably very necessary, even if a bit risky. But flying is often not a necessity, even if (as you claim) it is not very risky.

  26. A plane is safer than a bar or restaurant because people for the most part are more cautious in this setting. How many people do you see wearing masks or using hand sanitizer in a bar? The airlines are taking more steps to keep people safe than most other industry’s. And for those of you advocating everyone stay at home. For how long. What happens if an effective vaccine can’t be found? Then what? Life goes on and it has always been full of risks. To each his own.

  27. @Ekrem Definitely recommend the car seat which you’ll almost certainly need at your destination. You’ll also need video distraction (whether movies, cartoons or games) and plenty of healthy snacks and kid beverages. And of course diapers/pull-ups!

  28. While I don’t think there is a risk of mass spread on a plane, if the person sitting next to me decides they won’t wear a mask (for whatever reason) and they are infected but asymptomatic then I am at risk, as are those I would come into contact with before realizing I am infected.

  29. @Gary so you admit the statement says you are at risk for being on a plane! Great… Being that I don’t know who on the plane is infected, and even if we limit it to one row from that person, it’s still not worth it.

  30. Gary,

    Saying “We have no evidence of spread through airplanes” is not the same as “The risk is low”

    we have not done mass contact tracing through planes (Or even adequate contact tracing through planes) To evaluate the risk level.

    We have looked here and there. But not enough. (By leaps and bounds)

    This is a very complicated and nuanced issue. It can’t be learned in a few days or weeks of internet research. It takes years and decades of dedication, and even then we can be wrong.

    I understand where you’re coming from.
    I wish your statement is true. But it’s wrong.

    Airplanes are a risk of coronavirus transmission. It fits the most important “danger” sign of transmission which is close contact With others for hours

    We can’t quantify the risk. And we know there are far more important vectors, especially those where you have contact and then touch your face or eat or drink (hence:bars and restaurants)

    We can mitigate the risk
    Wipe down your seat and everything you touch when you board
    Wear a mask
    Do not eat or drink during flight
    Never touch your face for any reason
    Wash hands thoroughly immediately after deplaning

    But we can’t eliminate risk

    To see how hard this stuff is, read this
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/world/europe/coronavirus-spread-asymptomatic.html

    It shows how hard it was for experts to understand this disease process

    My GUESS is this:
    We are at risk if someone is coughing Or sneezing on plane, especially if they refuse to wear a a mask (Biggest risk). This is an2 meter risk.

    We are at risk from the person physically touching us for hours. This is a next seat risk.

    We are at risk from coronavirus if person who used seat before us was ill. This is a “my seat” risk

    I do not think (GUESS) we are at risk from a pre symptomatic person who isn’t touching us

    Again, airplanes are probably less risk than many other activities. (Such as a church potluck). But we do not know if it is a low or medium risk, and our contact tracing has not been adequate to delineate a risk level.

    Regardless, Thank you for your blog
    It keeps me sane

  31. @swag. Great message by giving the full quote. Gary shortchanged it to meet his story’s objective. Despite Gary’s reply, if I get it from the person next to me, then it is BAD.

    @Sally. I love it, thank you!

  32. Hmmm…11 QF crew members tested positive for coronavirus after a trip to SCL. To note that it is unknown whether the virus was contracted on board. However, in theory:

    “When on layovers, crew are restricted to being in their rooms or the hotel. Every crew member is provided with [personal protective equipment] including sanitiser, masks and gloves for use as required in transit.”

    The point is that we just don’t know.

    Gary – stop making this stuff up man – you are very irresponsible – you have also chosen to totally disregard the content of posts on your similar threads from highly qualified and experience medicos explaining to you the insanity of your theory that travel doesn’t make any difference now the virus is in the community.

    All cases of the virus outside of the location of patient zero have arisen because of travel.

    Whether or not you think it is safe to sit on an aircraft have a thought for the whole context. There was, for example, a cluster at ADL airport in QF staff servicing aircraft. Plus the cases cited above for flight / cabin crew. Plus the cases of people being put any risk be having to work their jobs in airports. Goodness knows how many in your country out of the how many millions is it now?

    No wonder the USA is in such an appalling state if your views are representative of the ignorance and attitude within the community.

  33. @Amy you’re so anxious to criticize me you either didn’t read or misconstrue the post

    You fault me for saying “going through the airport and being in an enclosed aircraft for 6 hours is “safe”.”

    When I literally conclude “Just know your bigger risks are in the airport, and at security checkpoints, than in the air.”

  34. @ Gary

    You just don’t get it do you?! You can’t claim either way!

    We’re not dealing with proven certainty here but a risk based analysis.

    Risk. Severity calculated on estimated probability and impact. Basic stuff. Ring any bells?

    Of course you sidestep this fundamental.

    Those governments who have been successful in controlling the virus didn’t base their policy on certainty, but recognised the risk in particular the impact. Small events in themselves with huge consequences.

    I guess I’m saying that your logical framework is inappropriate, simplistic. Your capacity to juggle concepts and available data blatantly absent.

    None of this would matter except you are circulating your nonsense publicly, which dangerously irresponsible – stick with the travel content where you are undisputed expert!

    Now be honest and confirm you would be willing to travel on an aircraft where you have a high chance of contacting an infected person! How many seats away would you feel comfortable based on your overly optimistic and highly presumed viewpoint.

  35. We were frequent travellers with medication, some needed ice packs to keep cold. We know how dirty it was just going through security, we kept all medications in clear bags, we had prescriptions and still they wanted to open them and touch.

    Shoes in the same bins. We had to cover bins with our own plastic. We had to wipe things down afterwards (due to some difficult handlers wanting to touch everything).

    We are aware of the spread, we were both in Hong Kong during SARS. If they hadn’t shut down places like they did, (and it was horrible times), the death count would have exceeded the 800 number the reported.

    Its spreads just like a cold, its a virus. Airplanes are difficult. Forget about HEPA filters. Everything around you is touched. The tray tables, the armrests, the lights, the channel selector, the air controls (Gupta on CNN).

    We learned you gotta stay clean, but not panic.

    Major advice, don’t touch your face with your hands. That was the best advice we followed during SARS

  36. We won’t know until we do better with contact tracing. This is how it is done in Australia.
    https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/covid-19/Pages/flights.aspx
    The chart shows a flight number, origin destination, date and…CLOSE CONTACT ROWS.
    Remember a couple things:
    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    Pay attention to the Precautionary Principle. What is the risk if you are wrong about NO transmission with air travel?

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