After months of lockdown many of us are looking forward to getting out and about again and some are even considering taking a holiday. While there are lots of beautiful places right here in the UK to enjoy for some the allure of destinations like Spain, Greece and Portugal will be too great to resist; especially with travel operators offering substantial discounts to tempt the tourists back.
The big question for those considering going overseas is whether or not it’s safe to fly yet.
We asked two health experts for their opinion on whether it’s sensible to consider flying this summer and how best to stay safe.
Understanding the risks
The primary concern with flying – or traveling by bus or train – is sitting within two metres (six feet) of an infected person. Remember even asymptomatic people, that is people who have been infected with the virus but have none of the common symptoms, can still transmit it to others.
Your risk of infection directly corresponds to your level of exposure, which is determined by the amount of time you are exposed to the virus and the volume of virus-contaminated droplets in the air.
A secondary concern is contact with contaminated surfaces. When an infected person contaminates a shared armrest, door handle, seat tray or other item, the virus can survive on that surface for hours, though it degrades over time. If you touch that surface and then touch your mouth, eyes or nose, you put yourself at risk of infection.
Before you book, think
While there is no way to make air travel 100% safe, there are ways to make it safer. It’s important to think through the particulars for each trip.
One approach would be to use what occupational health experts call the hierarchy of controls. This focuses on strategies to control your level of exposure to infection.
The best way to control exposure is to eliminate the hazard. Since we cannot eliminate the coronavirus, ask yourself if you can eliminate the trip. Think extra hard if your trip is really necessary especially if you are older or have pre-existing medical conditions, or if you are going to visit someone in that position.
If you still wish to travel, think about ways to substitute the hazard. Is it possible to drive? This would allow you to have more control over minimizing your level of exposure.
You’ve decided to fly, now what?
If you choose to fly, check out airlines’ policies on seating and boarding. Some airlines are minimizing capacity and spacing passengers by not using middle seats and having empty rows. Others are using more tightly controlled boarding procedures. Some airlines have announced plans to allow customers to cancel their booking if the flight goes over 70% seating capacity.
Government guidelines here in the UK and in other countries are changing all the time, so make sure you look up the most recent guidance from government agencies and the airlines and airports you are using for additional advice, and current policies or restrictions.
After you book, select a window seat if possible. If you consider the two metre radius circle around you, having a wall on one side would directly reduce the number of people you are exposed to during the flight by half, not to mention all the people going up and down the aisle.
Also, look for any information that the airline has published on the specific procedures they have put in place to reduce the risks of infection. These include ventilation systems, on-board barriers and using electrostatic disinfectant sprays between flights.
When the ventilation system on planes is operating, planes have a very high ratio of outside fresh air to recirculated air – about 10 times higher than most commercial buildings. Plus, most planes’ ventilation systems have HEPA filters. These are at least 99.9% effective at removing particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter and more efficient at removing both smaller and larger particles.
How to be safe from check in to arrival
From checking in, to going through security to boarding, you will be touching many surfaces. Here are some ways to minimize risk.
Bring hand wipes to disinfect surfaces such as your seat belt and your personal belongings, like your passport. If you cannot find hand wipes, bring a small washcloth soaked in a bleach solution in a zip bag. The viruses is not likely to linger on a cloth with a bleach solution. But remember: More bleach is not better and can be unsafe. You only need one tablespoon in four cups of water to be effective.
Bring plastic zip bags for personal items that others may handle, such as your ID. Bring extra bags so you can put these things in a new bag after you get the chance to disinfect them.
Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as often as you can. While soap and water is most effective, hand sanitizer is helpful after you wash to get any parts you may have missed.
Once you get to your window seat, stay put. If you can avoid using the toilet facility do so.
Wear a mask. If you already have an N95 respirator, consider using it but other face masks can also provide protection. We do not recommend purchasing N95 masks until health care workers have an adequate supply. Remember a mask will only be effective if it is used correctly. We do not recommend the use of gloves, as that can lead to a false sense of security and has been associated with reduced hand hygiene practices.
If you are thinking about flying with kids, there are special considerations. Getting a young child to adhere to wearing a mask and maintaining good hygiene behaviours at home is hard enough; it may be impossible to do so when flying. Children under 2 should not wear a mask.
Take sensible steps
Every day we are faced with decisions that require us to balance our own personal safety with risk. Arming yourself with accurate knowledge and information while taking some simple protective measures can reduce your risk of infection whatever form of travel you decide to use.
Written by Kacey Ernst, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Arizona and Paloma Beamer, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Arizona. This article is republished from The Conversation.