Our first holiday season under the pall of the coronavirus is upon us. Cases may be rising, and states may be implementing a new spate of shutdowns, but it’s looking like air travel will see big increases heading into Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season. Relatively, anyway: While ticket sales are down about 40 percent compared with this time last year, American Airlines still expects that it will run 15 percent more flights during Thanksgiving week than the rest of the month, and United Airlines expects that this will be its busiest week since the pandemic began. (Although the recent coronavirus spike has slowed last-minute booking and inspired more cancellations, as United has reported.) On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans against traveling for Thanksgiving, though it stopped short of issuing a mandate to that effect, and the warning may have come late enough that many won’t change their plans.
For many people, Thanksgiving will mean traveling on an airplane for the first time since the pandemic began. The coronavirus has battered the airline industry by making people more wary of flying due to both health and economic concerns; the industry has never before had to face an infectious disease crisis and a major recession at the same time. Airlines have tried to drum up business by offering cheap fares and more flexibility for ticket changes, but it’s only gone so far. Analysts don’t expect the industry to recover until 2023 at the earliest.
At the same time, a narrative has emerged that planes are relatively safe when it comes to the risk of COVID transmission. While driving is the best option for travel right now in terms of minimizing your time in an enclosed space with strangers, experts do see plane travel as lower-risk than buses or trains systems.
What can you expect in the air? Obviously, every airline is requiring passengers to wear masks on board, and many are keeping middle seats empty so that people don’t have to sit close to each other. HEPA and ventilation systems also cycle air out of the cabin and filter it at a much higher rate than indoor spaces you might enter on the ground. “Plane-based transmission has been a little bit lower than transmission linked to indoor dining or in a house,” said Abraar Karan, a doctor and global health expert at Harvard Medical School. “[Planes] have very good air exchange multiple times in an hour with HEPA filtration to remove air in the compartment that people would be exposed to, and that’s primarily important if you have aerosol-based spread.” In other words: The coronavirus droplets that might hang in the air elsewhere are likely to be whooshed out of the cabin with relative speed.
One recent research project gave a sense of how those air systems work, although it wasn’t entirely reassuring. In mid-October, the Department of Defense released the results of a study examining how likely it would be for a person to catch the coronavirus on a crowded commercial flight. Researchers used a mannequin equipped with an aerosol generator that emitted simulated virus particles in a Boeing 777 and 767. They ran 300 tests over roughly six months and found that if passengers are wearing masks, the likelihood of transmission is extremely low. Based on the results, you’d have to sit next to an infectious passenger for at least 54 hours in order to be exposed to a dangerous amount of the virus through the air. This is because those air filtering systems, the study found, are 15 times as fast as the filtration in a typical home, and five to six times as fast as what is recommended for hospital operating rooms. There were many limitations to the study: The mannequin didn’t move around, talk, use the lavatory, or remove its mask to eat and drink, and researchers didn’t examine how transmission could occur at the airport or through the boarding process.
Other studies based on apparent clusters of infected passengers have suggested that there are more serious risks associated with flying in the pandemic—but they were based on flights early in the pandemic, before airlines implemented their current measures like mandatory mask policies. The researchers in those studies also couldn’t definitively determine that the infections occurred during the flights.
The risks involved in air travel aren’t solely confined to what happens on the plane, though. Getting to the airport, waiting at the gate, retrieving luggage, and the other earthbound travel points all have their own hazards. “The airport is where all the bad behavior happens,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiology professor at the University of Arizona, based on her own experiences flying during the pandemic. “When we have been talking about traveling, we’ve been so focused on the airplane—understandably, it’s a small enclosed space—but we can’t just focus on one piece of the travel process. It has to be the entire thing.” Popescu noted that she’s seen lax social distancing and mask enforcement at security, ticketing, trams, and baggage claim in various airports and that the concerns over restaurants seem to have caused people to just take food to go and eat it at the gate, which isn’t any safer. When she flies, Popescu typically tries to eat before arriving at the airport so she won’t have to remove her mask and focuses on hand hygiene since there are a lot of high-touch surfaces, like check-in kiosks.
If you’re still trying to decide whether to fly for the holidays, there are a number of factors to consider, as well as measures you can take to make an infection less likely. “Start planning early so that you can be prepared and that you can do all these things to try to minimize your risk,” said Amanda Castel, an epidemiology professor at George Washington University. “If you decide that you want to travel and see your family, then you obviously need to have a discussion with them.” Of course, get the appropriate supplies. Apart from masks, Castel recommends bringing hand sanitizer and your own food. While there’s been some evidence that face shields and goggles are useful for protecting people in health care settings, it isn’t yet clear whether they’re effective on planes, though wearing this sort of gear certainly can’t hurt.
There are precautions you can take to avoid prolonged contact with crowds of people. For instance, some of the busiest travel days during the fall and winter tend to be the Saturday before Thanksgiving and then the Monday or Tuesday after, as well as the weekends before and after Christmas. The biggest drop-off in travel volumes usually occurs after New Year’s Day. “Summer is spread out since people have different schedules, but the holiday season tends to be compressed,” said Benét Wilson, an aviation journalist who currently serves as the credit card editor for the Points Guy. “On the whole, airlines will be prepared for an uptick in holiday travel. I don’t think it’s going to be the record crowds that we had last holiday season.” Choosing the right seat can also help you avoid being in close proximity with other passengers for longer than you have to be. Getting on the plane with one of the last boarding groups and sitting up front so that you’ll be one of the first people off can cut down on the amount of time you’re in the cabin.
Karan thinks that having an empty middle seat is still fairly important. “I would not want to be sitting directly next to somebody on a flight for hours and hours for the foreseeable future,” he said. Most airlines have been promising to keep these seats open for a certain period of time. For example, Southwest had initially said it would have empty middle seats until Oct. 31, but recently extended the pledge to Nov. 30, as did Alaska Air. JetBlue’s pledge expired on Oct. 15, and now the airline is instead capping jet capacity at less than 70 percent through Dec. 1. Delta Airlines has said it likely won’t start filling middle seats until the first half of 2021. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Spirit Airlines, meanwhile, have made no such pledges.
Other factors to consider are where you’re flying from and where you’ll disembark. Getting on a flight from an area that has a higher rate of infection means that you’re more likely to run into people who have the illness on the plane. An infected passenger could also be bringing the virus to an area that’s been able to keep its case count down thus far, so getting tested before leaving is a wise step. So is getting tested after you arrive, too, though keep in mind that turnaround times for results are expected to lengthen, as there has been a run on tests as the holidays have approached. Traveling from a low-risk to a high-risk area and back also means that you may be bringing the virus back home, which underscores the importance of quarantining upon your return. Given all this, it’s best to exercise as much caution—and restraint in choosing whether to travel at all—as you can.
Update, Nov. 23, 2020: This article was updated to include Amanda Castel’s first name and occupation.