Flying During a Pandemic

Is anyone else itching to get on an airplane and just go someplace?

This past weekend I took my first flight in over nine months. From 2016 to 2019, I took somewhere around 100 flights all over the world, so needless to say, this has been the longest I haven’t been jetting off somewhere.

To travel by plane during a pandemic is to take a calculated risk, so I’m going to share my experience and thought process in case you are thinking (or hoping!) to embark on similar excursions. 

Planes are an “indoor-like” setting, which increases exposure to potential risk because of the way air circulates indoors. Right now, many airlines are trying to filter their indoor air by using filtration systems that combine air from outside and inside.

Airline

I chose to fly Southwest Airlines because it is keeping its middle seats open to create more social distance between passengers and to limit the overall total number of passengers on flights.

Southwest also has a complete exchange of cabin air with outside air every three minutes. Like most airlines, it’s requiring people to keep their masks on while in flight.

Additionally, Southwest is currently cleaning entire plane cabins with a hospital-grade disinfectant. All of these precautions made me feel comfortable in choosing to fly Southwest.

Precautions

A person wearing a face mask.
Wearing an N95 mask while in flight.

I wore an N95 respirator face mask while in the airport and in flight. These masks are considered PPE (personal protective equipment) and are used to protect from airborne particles, most often by health care workers. One of my best friends is a nurse and lent me one of her masks for this occasion. This is a unique privilege; for those who are using cotton masks, inputting a coffee filter or purchasing a mask filter can work well too. Make sure you have a cotton mask with the extra lining so that you can put a filter in it!

I carried Clorox wipes with me and used them to wipe down my seat and surrounding area on the plane.

I paid extra for early boarding so that I could more easily choose where I sat. (Reminder: Southwest does not assign seats. It’s first come, first served.) On this trip, I was traveling with my dog, who only fits in the front row because of his size. Had I been traveling alone, I would’ve chosen to sit in the very back of the plane. By choosing the back of the plane and purchasing early boarding, this would have minimized my exposure to large sums of people.

Before and after getting off the plane, I stopped by a restroom and washed my hands. 

My flight was super short: Portland, Maine to Baltimore Washington International; just over one hour of flight time. Had it been a longer flight, where I’d get hungry or need to get up to use the bathroom in flight, then I likely would’ve used Clorox wipes to touch surfaces and/or I would’ve brought gloves so that I didn’t have to directly touch bathroom doors and surfaces. 

Lastly, once I returned home to Maine, I requested a COVID-19 test from my doctor so that I wouldn’t have to quarantine for 14 days and so that I could return to work. I was scheduled for an asymptomatic test a few days later and my results came back negative. The test was not “awful” as I’ve heard some people say. It was mildly uncomfortable, but so are flu and strep throat tests.

What’s most important is figuring out what you are most comfortable doing.

There are recommendations from the CDC and World Health Organization that say flying is considered moderate risk. If you’re like me and are able to take a flight with only 50 other people (i.e. a less traveled flight route) then that risk might not be as significant. Can you take all of the same precautions I took? If you can’t, how does that make you feel? If you can, do you feel adequately protected? You might take all the proper precautions and you could still contract the disease. These are questions I asked myself and risks I weighed before setting off.

I felt comfortable in the decisions I made and precautions I took. Had any one of these things been different, I might have reconsidered. We’re entering a new normal, and we must ask ourselves these types of questions.

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