If you feel like people are getting more comfortable with air travel at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, your hunch is correct.
But as people ease back into flying, there are still lingering questions about the risk involved in spending time on an airplane, especially now that airlines have ended their middle seat blocking policies. There’s a desire to assert control for the most nervous fliers by choosing to sit in the “safest” part of the plane from a COVID-19 transmission perspective. But is there such thing?
HuffPost asked health and travel experts to break down the safety of flying right now and how to choose a plane seat with minimal risk.
The risk of air travel is considered relatively low.
“Traveling on a plane does put you at risk for COVID exposure, but it is considered a lower risk,” said Dr. Cristina Amado, an infectious disease physician with Orlando Health Infectious Disease Group. “That is because of the safety checks and sanitation measures that airlines have developed. Crew members perform deep cleaning in between flights. Passengers are required to wear masks on flights. The risk of viral transmission on a flight is low due to the way air circulates and filters on an airplane.”
Airplanes generally have HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that circulate a mix of fresh and recycled air and minimize exposure to contagious droplets.
“There have been almost no superspreader events on planes compared to other indoor events,” said Scott Keyes, author of “Take More Vacations” and founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “The HEPA filters are constantly refreshing the air, everyone is required to wear a mask and face the same direction, and people are generally quiet, not shouting or singing, so it’s safer for COVID.”
He added that when the plane is on the ground might be a bit riskier, though still relatively low risk with masks, vaccinations, and distancing.
“When planes aren’t in the air, that same filtration system isn’t necessarily running, so you may not have the same level of air circulation the way you do during the flight,” Keyes said, noting that this can vary based on the airline and individual aircraft. “I believe United is one airline that has taken the step of running it with their auxiliary power unit during the boarding and deplaning process to minimize the transmission risk.”
Most experts believe the more considerable COVID-19 risk in air travel comes from the time before you even board the plane, thanks to things such as dining at airport restaurants, queuing to board, and waiting on a crowded jet bridge.
“The flight itself is low risk if you remain seated throughout,” said Dr. Sachin Nagrani, a physician and medical director for the telemedicine and house call provider Heal. “Airplane travel introduces the risk of contracting COVID primarily from spending time in security lines, at the gates, and while boarding and deplaning when you are near other people indoors.”
Window seats may carry the lowest risk.
Some airlines responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by keeping all middle seats empty on their flights.
“Studies done on keeping the middle seat open have shown decreased virus exposure by 23 to 57%,” Amado said. “However, these studies were not done on masked passengers.”