Hotels And Planes Are Both Safer Than We Thought (While Driving Still Has Risks)

There’s been no known cases of Covid-19 transmission on US airlines. Sure US contact tracing isn’t very good. But even internationally and across the whole world there are only a few flights where spread is believed to have occurred despite around a billion people traveling so far this year.

With HEPA air filtration and frequent refresh of cabin air, inflight seems about as safe as you can be in am indoor congregant setting.

The terminal is another issue. Most TSA checkpoints and bins aren’t well taken care of. Delta is doing something about that at terminals they control. TSA has expressed interest in and watched demos of United UVC technology. Nonetheless gate areas too can be crowded areas without the same ventilation and filtration system as planes.

Hotels too seem to be safe. There haven’t been documented cases of spread between rooms either in hotels or office buildings.

  • Office spread has occurred where there is an open floor plan. But the virus doesn’t seem to spread through HVAC systems though this is admittedly tentative. It doesn’t travel through walls, either. Your hotel room is probably low risk.

  • During the first SARS outbreak there was fecal transmission through plumbing in residential complexes but the issue there seemed to be “bathroom floor drains (not common in the US) with dry traps that allow air from the vent stack, which might be contaminated with fecal aerosols from other units, to flow into your bathroom.”

  • Lobbies are potential areas of spread but it seems not your room itself. And resorts with outdoor spaces that have proper precautions seem safe too. Even elevators are safer than we thought, at least modern elevators with regular air exchange. The greatest risk would be standing next to someone with the virus who is talking to you or that coughs on you, rather than aerosol buildup (and your time in the elevator is usually short).

While it makes sense that business travel can’t happen – heading to indoor conference or an office that is working from home doesn’t work – and leisure travel is limited too by quarantines in places like New York and by closed borders, the fear of travel itself was way overblown.

Travel does bring the virus from one place to another even if it isn’t spreading much during travel. But that is only a real issue for places that have contained the virus, not where it is already spreading (unless hospitals are at capacity where a marginal case is itself literally a stress on the system, an edge case).

But travel isn’t really a risk to the individual the way that many people thought it was. And the trend towards driving, renting cars or RVs? Driving has always been less safe than flying and the last seven months have shown that’s still the case.

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, 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. @ Gary — The problem with all of this is the there are limited documented cases of ANY spread in the US, but we have 8 million cases. It isn’t that contract tracing isn’t very good, but rather that it is practically non-existent. People should just stay home if possible, and wear a mask and socially distance when they have to go out for essentials.

  2. I agree Gene that contact tracing in the US is practically a joke. There was a superspreader event at the White House a few weeks ago and we barely heard anything about any contact tracing being done (am a registered Independent who watch both conservative and liberal news.)

  3. We’re about to pass the daily highs established at the peak in July. National leadership on this is non-existent, for all the obvious reasons.

    No, the restrictions won’t magically be lifted on 11/3 or there abouts when Biden inevitably wins, but at least a reasonable, actionable plan will start being formulated then.

  4. “Driving has always been less safe than flying and the last seven months have shown that’s still the case.”

    Can you eleborate?

  5. “Driving has always been less safe than flying and the last seven months have shown that’s still the case.”

    So you spend the majority of the article talking about COVID-risk in hotels and planes. Then your headline and conclusions refers to the overall risk of driving (e.g. traffic accidents). Come-on Gary, this is ridiculous. If you are going to do this – you need to compare COVID-risk of driving to COVID-risk of hotels and airplanes. Apples to Apples. Not Apples to Orangutans

  6. Gary – I think you underestimate the complexity of contact tracing. Contact tracing people in a restaurant is easy. Everyone is likely local including the health official jurisdiction, especially during the pandemic. So you have clear results showing that it spreads.

    But here’s the thing: as soon as people change states, the event is a whole lot more complicated from an execution perspective. Additionally, it’s been shown that contact tracing and isolation are only effective during the early stages of the pandemic, so there’s not a lot of effort on that anymore.

    As an aside, I still don’t understand how you are pro-mask but anti-enforcement. People have shown a lack of responsibility for the welfare of others time and time again. Is it your opinion that drinking and driving should be legal as well? In my mind, the fact that you can spread the disease to vulnerable people who have no choice in the matter makes it a very close analogy.

  7. Gene says “ People should just stay home if possible, and wear a mask and socially distance when they have to go out for essentials.“ You do realize this is a travel blog. A lot of us are traveling now and we appreciate the info provided.

    Thanks UA-NYC As the democratic rep you never fail to make each and every post political. !

  8. I have zero risk of transmission in my car compared to some greater than zero risk in a plane.

    This headline reads like it’s being paid for by a airline trade group

  9. I think he means that driving is a more dangerous way to travel, both before and during the CoVid-19 virus.

  10. When that airplane study came out I just knew we would see another article complaining about travel restrictions and things being overblown. As stated many times before. People don’t magically teleport into their airplane seat. They have to travel to the airport and then they travel at their destination. The US just crossed the 8 million COVID case threshold. We have seen AMPLE evidence of how travel spreads this virus. Look at Sturgis. Especially look at Europe where they had a lot of travel this August. How is that working out for Europe right now as many cities are going into full lockdown? If people just socially distanced, wore their masks and stayed in one place we would easily be able to get this virus under control, but no we have to continue to embarrass ourselves and then listen to people complain about the inevitable restrictions. Funny how Taiwain, China, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia etc don’t have these issues.

  11. @Cmorgan – everything is political until Agent Orange is out of office, sorry to break the news to you

    Countries with authoritarian leaders (like Brazil w/Bolsonaro) who deny the science also aren’t exactly well either…great club to be in

  12. New Zealand traced the spread to an elevator button. There are very few places that have the capability or will to contact trace at this level. And just because these don’t result in super spreading events like rose garden parties doesn’t mean they’re insignificant.

  13. @UA-NYC

    And a Harris-Biden administration wouldn’t be political? Or will dissent from the DNC party line effectively be banned, making “politics” a thing of the barbaric, pre-woke past?

    If you think the Bad Orange Man’s administration is an example of tyranny, you have no idea what tyranny is. Try single party rule in the USSR or PRC. I guess that is the goal of the Blue Wave. Orange Man Bad! I literally can’t even!

    Bedwetters are free to stay at home. I will be requalifying for 1K. Maybe masks should be mandated for fat people to prevent them from eating themselves to sickness or even death. It’s white supremacy that causes obesity, not gluttony, right?

  14. There are still too many unknowns with this virus to be traveling unnecessarily. Also, this is a health/science issue. Let’s stop politicizing it.

  15. Heard second-hand from a colleague overseas that every family he knows got covid when flying on long flights. So I tend not to believe studies that intuitively make no sense. Small space, sharing air with strangers <6 feet away for 10-15 hours, no thanks. Guy behind me on my last flight was coughing and didn't even have his mask on right. I'll take my chances in my own (solo) vehicle on the roads where traffic is lighter than usual and I have 100s of great leisure options within a day's driving distance. But hey, to each his own. Just self-quarantine yourselves so you don't infect anybody else.

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