All Your Questions About Flying During The Pandemic, Answered
Airplanes are safer than you’d think, but getting there and back isn’t.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 disease a pandemic, you might question whether flying during the coronavirus outbreak is safe. With nonessential travel between many countries banned, you might be grappling with the potential dangers of traveling during the pandemic. If you do choose to fly during the coronavirus outbreak, doctors agree on a number of strategies for keeping yourself healthy.
How Is Coronavirus Affecting Flights?
Keep in mind that the State Department is advising all Americans to avoid international travel right now. "In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period," the department's travel advisories site warns. "U.S. citizens who live abroad should avoid all international travel." Here's how major U.S. airlines are responding:
- Domestic capacity in July 2020 is at about 55% of domestic flight capacity during July 2019, meaning only 55% of flights are taking off compared to the same time last year.
- International flight capacity is at about 20% compared to available service in July 2019.
- American Airlines is no longer blocking off seats to encourage social distancing.
You can find more details at American Airlines' newsroom.
- Delta is operating domestic flights out of most U.S. airports.
- Delta will not be flying to many airports in South America or Europe in the coming months, though service has been restored to Australia.
- Delta has committed to blocking off seats until September 30.
You can find more details at Delta's newsroom.
- Domestic travel for United in July 2020 will be at around 40% capacity compared to July 2019, the company expects.
- United announced in early July that it will be expanding flight service between Chicago and Tel Aviv in August. It is also reinstating service between LA and Sydney, and between Chicago and Hong Kong, in September.
- Pending international travel bans on travelers from the U.S., United expects to re-expand its international service in August 2020.
- United Airlines is not blocking off seats to encourage social distancing.
You can find more details on United's travel updates site.
JetBlue will block middle seats for social distancing through Labor Day, according to The New York Times, and Alaska Airlines and Southwest will block seats through September 30.
Can You Fly Within The U.S. During The Coronavirus Outbreak?
Yes, you can still fly within the U.S., but, you might see drastically fewer options. Though there are still far fewer domestic flights in July 2020 compared to July 2019, major airlines like United are adding around 25,000 domestic flights over the summer of 2020.
Depending on the states you're traveling to and from, you might be required to quarantine for 14 days after making your trip. With that said, the situation with the coronavirus anywhere can change rapidly. You'll want to keep up to date on the state of coronavirus in any American city that you plan to visit, and then plan accordingly. For example, Puerto Rico was scheduled to reopen to tourism on July 15, but has postponed reopening for non-essential travel as a result of an uptick in cases.
What Countries Or Regions Have Issued Travel Bans For Americans?
Travelers from the United States are being denied entry to over 30 countries and regions across the world to stem the spread of COVID-19.
On July 16, the European Union's 27 countries extended their ban on travelers from the U.S. The EU will review their list of banned countries every two weeks. New Zealand has banned U.S. tourists as their COVID rates have dropped to near-zero. Americans can no longer travel commercially to the Bahamas, despite the island re-opening itself to international travel from elsewhere on July 1. China and Japan have banned U.S. travelers, Forbes reports, and Mexico and Canada are also not allowing nonessential travel from the United States.
Will I Get A Refund If I Cancel My Flight Due To Coronavirus?
Lots of airlines are temporarily changing their rebooking and cancellation rules because of the coronavirus and recent travel restrictions. If you bought tickets for summer flights in the beginning of the pandemic, airlines are regularly adjusting their refund policies to keep up with COVID updates. Here's a quick breakdown of refund and exchange policies for major U.S. airlines:
- Tickets purchased between March 1 and July 31, 2020 can have changing fees waived for "travel impacted by coronavirus."
- Domestic and international flights scheduled to depart through September 30, 2020 also are eligible for fee waivers.
Visit Delta's website for more information.
- Change fees waived for all tickets "impacted by coronavirus." This applies to all domestic and international flights with tickets issued between April 1, 2020 and July 31, 2020.
- New tickets of equal or lesser value can be issued with no fee for travel taking place within 12 months of the original ticket issue date.
Visit United Airlines' website for more information.
- No change fees for customers to change their flight. All you have to do is cancel your flight within 10 minutes of departure, and use those funds for future travel through September 7, 2022.
Visit Southwest's website for more information.
- Change/cancellation fees waived for customers traveling through July 31, as long as they book a new flight (available through the end of JetBlue's schedule) by July 31, 2020.
Visit JetBlue's website for more information.
- Change fees waived for customers who purchased tickets on or before July 31 for travel scheduled through Sept 30, 2020.
- Customers must be able to travel by Dec. 31, 2021 or within one year of the date ticket was issued, whichever is earlier.
Visit American Airlines' website for more information.
- For tickets purchased between February 27, 2020 and July 31, 2020, with travel dates through February 27, 2020 and June 30, 2021, can be cancelled without a fee and exchanged for future travel credit.
Visit Alaskan Airlines' website for more information.
You should also read up on your airline's general rebooking and cancellation policies.
Coronavirus Travel Notices From The CDC
The CDC offers a helpful breakdown of travel notices, ranking the risk level (on a scale of one to three) for traveling to a given country. Right now, it recommends that people avoid all nonessential international travel because of "widespread, ongoing transmission" of the coronavirus. The CDC has also placed a warning level 3 notice on cruise travel worldwide. Furthermore, the U.S. implemented travel restrictions for non-U.S. citizens traveling from European countries that have been affected by the coronavirus. According to the CDC, if U.S. citizens return to the states from any of those countries, they should quarantine for 14 days.
How Safe Are Airplanes During The Pandemic?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traveling on airplanes during COVID is not necessarily as dangerous as you might think — airplanes filter circulated air such that virus particles are dispersed (and therefor less likely to infect you). However, the difficulty of social distancing in a potentially crowded airport or on crowded flights does increase your risk of exposure to coronavirus, the CDC says.
If you are going to fly, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that you avoid using the bins at security checkpoints, instead putting loose items like your phones, keys, and wallets into your carry-on to avoid cross-contamination. Wash your hands both before and after passing through security and wear a mask throughout the airport. The TSA also encourages you to scan your own boarding pass when possible to minimize touching. Despite the typical three fluid ounce regulation, the TSA will allow you to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer on a flight until further notice.
But just because you can get on a plane doesn't mean you should. Avoid flying if you're sick, and make sure you're following state-by-state quarantine protocols when you're traveling to or from areas with high infection rates.
Should Immunocompromised, Elderly, Or Pregnant People Fly During The Coronavirus Outbreak?
Pregnant women do not appear to be more susceptible to coronavirus, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and there isn't proof that the virus can be passed to the fetus. Still, Daniel Roshan, director of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine in New York City, told the Washington Post that he thinks pregnant women should avoid flying if they can help it.
On the other hand, the CDC reports that older adults and those with "serious chronic medical conditions" (like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease) are at a higher risk of getting "very sick" from coronavirus compared to the general population. As a result, it recommends they avoid "all non-essential travel" for the time being, including plane trips and traveling on cruise ships.
If You Do Book A Flight Right Now, Will It Be Cheaper?
Yes, it's possible that you might be able to book cheaper domestic or international flights during the coronavirus outbreak — but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.
Even if you're super healthy, or in a low-risk age demographic for COVID-9, social distancing is one of the most effective ways to contain the spread of coronavirus, the CDC says, and you can't really practice social distancing when you fly. Further, when you travel, you're carrying germs along with you everywhere you go. So if you fly somewhere, get infected with the virus, and come home, you could pass that virus along to countless others along the way, even if you exhibit no symptoms at all. And even if you want to take advantage of cheap airfare to plan your summer 2021 vacation, remember that it's not certain if there will be a vaccine or widespread treatments by that time — so tread cautiously.
Will You Be Quarantined If You Travel During The Coronavirus Outbreak?
Many states are currently requiring a 14-day quarantine period if you're traveling from an area with high infection rates. Different states have varying standards about when you should quarantine, and lists are updated regularly.
How To Disinfect Your Plane Seat Area During The Coronavirus Outbreak
If you have to fly during the coronavirus outbreak, there are a few ways you can keep yourself as healthy as possible while you travel. According to The New York Times, you can clean your area with a disinfectant wipe, making sure to wipe down all of the hard surfaces around you. This includes the remote, screen, seatbelt buckle, seat tray, and seat pocket.
As for any leather or porous surfaces, like your actual seat, try not to wipe them down with wet wipes, because that can spread germs rather than kill them, The New York Times reports. Instead, be prepared to use your hand sanitizer liberally before and after coming into contact with frequently-used surfaces.
Airline Cleaning Protocols In Response To Coronavirus
There's some reason to believe planes could be all around cleaner than they were before COVID-19 started spreading. “When I worked this weekend, everyone had a package of wet wipes and was wiping everything down,” one Atlanta-based flight attendant told Bustle in March. “This is probably the cleanest the plane has ever been.”
Separately, some airlines have ramped up their cleaning protocols during the coronavirus outbreak. Southwest has implemented a new "enhanced aircraft cleaning program," with the addition of a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. Per a press release, HEPA filters "filter out recirculated air onboard each plane to remove airborne particles." However, BuzzFeed News pointed out that coronavirus particles are too small to be filtered out of the air.
Other Ways To Protect Yourself From Coronavirus While Flying
There are a few standard strategies you can take to keep yourself as safe from germs as possible while you travel.
"People should take the same measures [for the coronavirus] that they do for the flu or any other virus," explains Dr. Janine Kelly, M.D., an attending physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. "Don’t touch surfaces that someone who has sick has touched. Wash your hands regularly and use sanitizer. Avoid contact with people who are sneezing and coughing."
Dr. Mariea Snell, M.D., assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Program at Maryville University, tells Bustle that disinfectant wipes can also come in handy. In addition to state-by-state requirements on face masks, major U.S. airlines are requiring face coverings while traveling.
Ultimately, while traveling can increase the odds of your getting sick in general, it doesn't necessarily mean there's cause for alarm. "It is important to be safe but it's also important to not panic," Dr. Snell says.
Travel and health circumstances can change quickly with an outbreak. Consider following the CDC and the WHO on social media to stay up to date on the situation, especially if you have a trip planned.
Dr. Mariea Snell, M.D., assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University
Dr. Janine Kelly, M.D., attending physician at Maimonides Medical Center
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.
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