Is It Safe to Fly During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

The global spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus, is causing significant changes to the way we travel. Be sure to read up on the latest information and travel recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

On March 19, 2020, the US State Department issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory on all international travel and as of June 10, it’s still in effect. It's the highest level of travel advisory we have -- hammering home the severity of the situation with a bright-red banner warning "DO NOT TRAVEL." While not a legally binding mandate, it means that Americans should avoid traveling outside the country at all costs, even as countries like Italy and Mexico begin phased reopening of their borders.

“In the current stage of our pandemic, the most critical thing for as many people as possible to do is to stay home, practice social distancing, and not travel,” said Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health. “Not even locally.”

Yep, domestic air travel is also strongly discouraged, even as states begin to open up businesses, national parks, and more. But if you have no other choice but to fly, you’ll likely face various restrictions, self-quarantine orders (depending on where you land), and a lot of intricately designed face masks. If you’re confused about what to expect, we’re right there with you. We spoke to experts to break down the most pressing questions about flying right now.

What states can I even visit, and how can I do it safely?

As of May 20, all 50 states have begun loosening their restrictions on stay-at-home orders. Many states such as Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Texas have lifted their active orders, while residents of California are still under a modified order to stay home. Here’s a full breakdown of each state’s reopening guidelines

If you’re planning on flying soon, check how COVID-19 is spreading where you’re headed.

What are airlines doing differently right now?

As of May 28, airline passenger volumes were down nearly 90%. TSA is screening 88% fewer travelers compared to this time last year, and as a result more than half of the US’s aircraft fleet is parked, according to Katherine Estep, communications director of Airlines for America (A4A).  A4A serves as an advocate for its airline members to create and execute policies that ensure safety, security and health in the US airline industry. Members include Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and American Airlines. 

But with states reopening and more testing sites becoming available, air travel is slowly picking up speed again is a possibility. Air carriers are taking measures to help ensure the safety of passengers and flight crews, and most if not all airlines have already begun implementing more intense safety and cleaning procedures. 

Estep said A4A’s member airlines have aircraft equipped with HEPA filters, which help generate hospital-grade air quality. 
“US airlines have also implemented intensive cleaning protocols, in some cases to include electrostatic cleaning and fogging procedures,” Estep said. “Carriers are working around the clock to sanitize cockpits, cabins, and key touch points -- including tray tables, armrests, seatbelts, buttons, vents, handles, and lavatories -- with EPA-approved disinfectants.

It’s common now for airlines to require passengers to wear masks covering their mouth and nose for the duration of their flight.  In-flight food and beverage services are still facing suspensions and reductions on flights with Alaska, Southwest, Delta, JetBlue, United, and American

You can find more information on coronavirus policies for United Airlines here, for Delta Air Lines here, for American Airlines here, for Southwest Airlines here, for Spirit Airlines here and for JetBlue here.

What are the best tips for staying safe while you’re in an airport or on a plane?

Before boarding, most people have a lot of time on their hands in the terminal. These areas often put people in close quarters with one another, and travelers are in frequent contact with surfaces that are touched often. Avoid touching your face, specifically your eyes, mouth, and nose to prevent spreading. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends regularly cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water.  

The term “social distancing” is likely etched into your brain now, but even with reopening phases rolling out in different states across the country, it’s still important to remain 6 feet away from others when in the airport and after landing at your destination.

If nothing else, wearing a mask is highly recommended and even required on most airlines. Make one from cloth materials you have at home or purchase one from your vendor of choice.

But just how helpful is hand sanitizer, really?

Hand sanitizer has its place, assuming it has an alcohol content of at least 60% (ideally, at least 70%). It’s not as effective in preventing the spread of the virus as a good, vigorous washing with soap, but for the times when soap and water are not an option -- like when you’re seated on a plane -- it’s absolutely better than nothing.

“If you’re on the move, traveling in a place where a sink isn’t readily available, it’s a great thing to use between contacts,” said Vreeman. “That being said, you do need to be cautious about completely drying out your skin as well. If you’re using it to a degree that you’re starting to get breaks in your skin, you need to be careful because that too can actually let infections get into your body.”

Due to the outbreak, the TSA is easing its restrictions on bringing liquids through security. Passengers may now carry containers up to 12 ounces in size. Other liquids and gels will remain limited to 3.4-ounce containers.

What about face masks?

As things stand now, all Americans are advised to wear masks when they’re out in public -- even as the temperatures rise. This is less to protect you and more to protect the people around you, as even asymptomatic people can be carrying the virus. If you don’t have access to a surgical mask or a similar covering, a bandana or scarf wrapped around your nose and mouth works too. 

Do I need to quarantine when I land?

At the onset of COVID-19, quarantining put a literal pause on our “normal” way of living. But this extended period of isolation was in an effort to “flatten the curve,” or reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases in a particular area. 

Since there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and no vaccine available yet, there is a risk of getting infected or infecting others when traveling. The risk is greater if you are traveling to visit friends or family members who are at a higher risk of becoming ill from COVID-19

Some health departments may require you to quarantine for 14 days after traveling. Check your state’s restrictions here. The CDC recommends also avoiding all nonessential international travel, but if you have traveled recently, you should stay home for 14 days to monitor your health and practice social distancing.

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Kastalia Medrano is a New York based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.
Kristen Adaway is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. Follow her @kristenadaway