We have not recovered from the Delta variant yet, only to enter a new phase with the onset of the Omicron variant. While we don’t yet know whether the new variant is more severe (the initial evidence is that it is not) or whether it can more easily get around the vaccines, we do know it is much more infectious.
Many of you are likely considering a flight for the upcoming holidays or for a winter vacation. After all, news outlets (and we at Zephyr) have been talking about living with the pandemic and moving on with our lives. So how do you fly safely during COVID, especially with the more contagious Omicron variant?
Flying Is Generally Low Risk
Studies have shown from early on that flying during COVID appears to be much lower risk than you might imagine. A recent survey published September 3 in the Journal of Travel Medicine analyzed 18 such studies and found 273 “index” cases – those who brought the virus on board – and 64 “secondary” cases – those who were infected while onboard.
This in no way represents the total number of infected people who have flow nor the total infections that have happened on airlines. It also isn’t accurate even for those 273 cases, since contact tracing is not regularly done. But it does show that in these documented instances, infected people have not spread the disease to large numbers on airplanes.
In our own personal experience, we are not aware of any of our 2021 travelers getting infected on airplanes en route to our tours.
Precautions You Can Take
I flew over Thanksgiving and will be on another flight tomorrow morning to run a sea kayaking tour in Baja, Mexico. I feel comfortable with my safety while at the airport and on board. Here is what I do to decrease risks:
N95 Mask: Perhaps the easiest and most effective precaution I take is that I ditch my normal cloth mask and instead wear an N95 mask in the airport and on board. Studies modeling aerosol dispersion on an aircraft found that the risk of infection declines by 73% if everyone on board has a “high efficiency” mask and by 32% if everyone has a “low efficiency” mask. I can’t control what others do but I must say I feel pretty comfortable with my N95 mask on. I found it striking that at the end of a long interview in The Scientist magazine, Ashok Srinivasan of the Viral Infection Propagation Through Air-Travel project said:
“The risk of infection from air travel or any other situation can almost be eliminated by using an N95 mask or equivalent.” And in talking about other precautions “If people wear N95 masks, then most of this actually doesn’t matter.” Note this was an April 2021 interview before recent variants but the message is still the same. Wear an N95 mask in the airport and on the plane.
While Seated: Studies have shown that keeping your air nozzle on and pointed down past your face disperses aerosol droplets. I keep this on all flight. I also use a wipe to clean all the surfaces I might touch; this might or might not be necessary but it doesn’t take much time or effort.
Meal and Snack Time: I sat on the plane two days ago next to a young woman who kept her mask on the whole time … except when the paltry snack and drinks were served. At that point, she calmly sipped her coffee for 20 minutes with her mask down. This, of course, is what many other people are doing at the exact same time.
I try to eat before boarding, either at home or in an isolated place in the airport. When I do drink or have a snack on board, I take quick bites or sips and replace my mask. I don’t do this during meal or snack service. I find the N95 masks are hard to wear while chewing, so if I do eat a larger snack or sandwich on board, I usually swap out the 95 for a more flexible cloth mask that I can wear while chewing and then put the 95 mask on when I am done.
Boarding: While on a plane, you are at risk from those seated immediately around you. If they are not infected, your risk is small. While boarding, you are standing in line next to additional passengers who are in line next to you or perhaps seated in the aisle as you are passing, waiting for someone to stow their luggage. It is also true that those highly effective aircraft ventilation systems are not always turned on while a plane is sitting on the tarmac – it depends on the pilot. So the longer you sit on the plane on the tarmac, the greater your risk. My strategy is to be the very last person to board the plane, so that I can hang out at the end of the line while boarding and reduce my exposure to others. Granted if you have a carryon and need to fight for stowage space, this strategy does not work.
At the Airport: The goal is to minimize your time next to people you do not know. I usually sit and wait at a gate that is not being used near my own gate. I definitely don’t eat in airport restaurants or drink in airport bars. I keep my airport mask on. I have had TSA Pre-Check for a number of years now and find it absolutely necessary to reduce wait times going through screening. I also registered for Clear this year, which I highly recommend if it is available at your home airport as it essentially eliminates waiting at security.