Although the number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) each day is still down from past years, it has risen substantially — from lows of fewer than 100,000 travelers a day in April to more than 886,000 on Jan. 10, for example (though that’s still far fewer than the more than 2.1 million who flew on the same day last year).
Here’s what to expect and how to lower your risk if you fly.
At the Airport
“Bring some alcohol wipes with you and wipe down anything you’re going to touch,” says Robert Murphy, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
U.S. airports and major airlines report that they are following CDC guidelines for sanitizing public interfaces: cleaning with disinfectant all check-in kiosks, ticket counters, gate seating — among other frequently touched areas — multiple times a day, and providing hand sanitizer throughout ticket and boarding areas.
The major airlines require passengers to wear masks onboard (except when they are eating or drinking), as well as throughout the airports they serve. Those who don’t comply risk being banned from future flights.
The TSA is asking travelers to use enhanced precautions during airport screening, including putting personal items such as wallets, phones and keys into carry-on bags instead of plastic bins, and staying 6 feet from others waiting in line. TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves, and to change gloves after a passenger pat down, and travelers are encouraged to wear masks as well.
Passengers are allowed to bring liquid hand sanitizer in containers up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags; previously, liquids could be in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces. And they can board flights with driver’s licenses that expired beginning March 1, 2020, “to use it as acceptable ID at checkpoints for one year after expiration date, plus 60 days after the COVID-19 national emergency.” (Some people have been unable to renew their licenses because of the outbreak.)
And note that you now have until Oct. 1, 2021, before you’ll need a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was delayed a year.
On the Plane
The airlines are doing what they can to prevent infection, including requiring passengers and crew to wear masks, beefing up disinfection procedures, and boarding passengers from the back of the plane to the front. Some are blocking middle seats to enable social distancing. (Delta says it will do so through at least March.) They point to a Harvard University report out last month declaring that travel during the pandemic is no more risky than going to a grocery store. Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “a relatively very low risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] while flying,” thanks to air-filtering systems and requirements that passengers wear masks.
All the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The CDC concurs, noting in its guidance for travel during the pandemic, that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”
But the CDC also notes that while “we don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others,” air travel can make social distancing particularly difficult. Murphy suggests that passengers “wipe the area down where you’re going to be sitting, and the armrests and the tray table — anything you touch. If there’s a touch screen or control or something, you need to clean that before you touch it.”
He adds: “If anybody around you is sick, get off the airplane.”