Worried about COVID risk on a flight? Here’s what you can do to protect yourself – and how airlines can act

Health advice for air travel has so far mainly focused on how to stay hydrated and prevent deep vein thrombosis. What passengers really want is an increased focus on infection prevention and disease control, free masks, free hand sanitizer, and more space between passengers on the plane.

That’s according to our new study, published in the journal Infection, Disease and Health, which is based on survey responses from 205 frequent flyers around the world.

Airline ticket bookings are likely to rise as borders open between New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

Decimated by COVID-19, the aviation industry must work hard to restore customer confidence in their commitment to infection control measures.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering air travel anytime soon – and what the airlines can do to reduce risk.

Read more: Airplane cabins are a haven for germs. Here’s how they can clean up their act

Airplane Travel and COVID Risk: What You Need to Know

By applying a set of established infection prevention and control measures, the risk of COVID during a flight is minimized.

We would fly if we had to, but we would follow the same measures we would if we took a train or any other form of public transport.

Those measures include, but are not limited to:

  • stay home if you are not well. Even if you have the mildest respiratory symptoms, such as a mildly sore throat or a hint of fever, you should not go to the airport or catch a plane. Isolate yourself and get tested without delay
  • wash your hands regularly or use alcohol-based hand rubbing systematically
  • observing from physical distance
  • stay put and don’t touch your face
  • where physical distance is not possible, wearing a face mask.

These are the same long-standing set of recommendations you should follow anyway, whether you’re taking the train to work or shopping at a supermarket.

Using these established infection control measures routinely and systematically will reduce the risk of COVID during a flight.

Virgin planes are lined up on the tarmac.
Adopting a set of established infection prevention and control measures will help minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 during a flight.

Passengers want more from airlines

The key finding from our research is that the flying public – especially frequent flyers – wants more from their airlines about how to protect themselves against infectious diseases.

We surveyed 205 frequently flying adults on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn on what they thought airlines should do to restore passenger confidence and a sense of security.

We found:

  • 75.6% reported feeling “somewhat” to “very” concerned about contracting an infectious disease while flying, especially respiratory-related infectious diseases
  • Only 9.8% said their preferred airline saw their health as an “essential priority”
  • 86.8% wanted airlines to offer free hand disinfection
  • 86.8% wanted airlines to provide sanitary towels for free
  • 64.4% wanted airlines to provide masks for free
  • 90.7% wanted airlines to provide more information on how to prevent the spread of infections, which would make the majority feel safer to fly.

More than half of the respondents indicated that in the past they never brought their own alcohol-based hand sanitizer or hygienic wipes on flights. Female respondents were more likely to wear alcohol-based hand sanitizers or hygiene wipes while flying.

We also asked respondents how often they wore a face mask before COVID to protect themselves from infectious diseases while flying. The vast majority (83.4%) said they never wore one.

However, the majority (83.4%) indicated that they would feel ‘to some extent’ safe to fly if all passengers and staff had to wear a face mask while flying.

In other words, our research showed that people are really willing to engage in behavior to mitigate risk – some of which they expect airlines to support and others which they would maintain themselves.

COVID-19 is spreading all over the world in planes

According to the International Air Transport Association, “44 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the start of 2020 where transmission is believed to be related to air travel (including confirmed, probable and potential cases)”.

It is important to note that COVID-19 is a disease that is very rapidly spreading worldwide through infected travelers.

Like many countries, Australia has mandated quarantine on international arrivals, where the infection is diagnosed in travelers. This shows that we – both passengers and airlines – must do everything possible to implement the right infection prevention measures around air travel.

Many airlines have taken measures to reduce the COVID-19 risk, such as temperature screening, physical distance at check-in, and encouragement of masks at the airport. That’s good, but the research tells us that passengers want more.

Passengers walk in an airport
Many airlines have taken measures to reduce the COVID-19 risk, such as temperature screening, physical distance at check-in, and encouragement of masks at the airport. But passengers want more.

As promising results emerge from the many COVID-19 vaccine trials underway around the world, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has said:

We are in the process of changing the terms and conditions to say for international travelers that we will ask people to get vaccinated before boarding.

Vaccination is a very important way to prevent the spread of disease and it is helpful for airlines to signal that vaccines are coming and important to them.

We still have a long way to go before vaccines are available, and there is still a lot we don’t know yet – such as how long immunity to a vaccine can last or whether booster doses may be needed. So there are a number of factors to consider when airlines require vaccination for their passengers.

People are boarding a Jetstar flight.
It’s helpful for airlines to signal that vaccines are coming and important to them.

Joyce has also said it would be “uneconomic” to leave the center seat in each row empty. Instead, she pointed out that the aircraft’s air conditioning features hospital-grade HEPA filters, which remove 99.9% of all particles, including viruses.

HEPA filters in closed rooms are logical and important. But they are not everything and all end. If I stand next to someone on an airplane who unknowingly has COVID-19 and who is not wearing a face mask and who sneezes on me and their drops get in my eyes, nose or mouth, I run the risk of contracting COVID. 19 despite in-cab HEPA filtration.

In other words, the best protection is provided by systematically taking basic measures. That includes staying home, isolating, and getting tested if you have even the mildest symptoms. It means regular hand hygiene, where you don’t touch your face, distance yourself and use a face mask if you can’t physically stand back.

The routine application of these measures, along with other measures such as cabin air filtration, goes a long way to protect us from infectious diseases while flying.

Read more: Why the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is now a global game changer

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