Flying can be risky these days so what should you do if you need to travel? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, share tips on how to mitigate some of that risk.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Megan Marcus, executive producer, CNN Audio: So it’s a night before my flight to Arizona, and I’m actually a little bit more nervous and anxious than I thought.
Zoë Saunders, producer, CNN Audio: My partner and I are planning to fly from New York to San Francisco. And it’s really scary.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: You just heard from the executive producer of our podcast, Megan Marcus, and one of our producers, Zoë Saunders. They flew out from two different New York City airports last weekend to visit family. And we asked them to record themselves on their phones so we could follow along. You’re gonna hear from them throughout this episode.
The reason being is that flying can be risky these days. So in this episode, I’ve decided to tell you what to expect when you do fly, and how you can best stay safe.
Flight announcement: To adhere to CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations, American Airlines is now requesting all passengers wear facial coverings for the duration of the flight. Thank you for your attention. Enjoy your flight.
Gupta: I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
Now for starters, I don’t recommend traveling unless it’s essential. But what’s considered essential is different for each one of us.
All over the world, flights have dropped off by around 95%.
But for the first time in weeks, Americans are now booking more flights than they are canceling, and US airlines are adding flights to their schedules.
So if you must get on a plane, I’m gonna give you some tips to try and stay as safe as possible, with the help of Erin Bromage, who’s an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
In March, Erin and his family flew to Australia to visit his parents.
Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth: So we were weighing up the risk of traveling, and introducing that virus to my parents and to the people I love.
And then it just came down to being vigilant at the airports and on the plane when we were traveling to make sure that the exposure didn’t happen over that time.
Gupta: Even before they left their home, Erin and his kids practiced how to open doors, and came up with a plan for when they had to interact with other people.
Bromage: What we had decided to do was just have a single contact person for all interactions. It didn’t matter if it was with the check-in counter or if it was with a shop to buy a magazine.
Every person in your party that interacts with another person is another opportunity for infection.
Gupta: It helps to come up with a plan like that, especially when you’re traveling with your family.
Another useful tip: Before you fly, don’t forget to put your boarding pass on your phone ahead of time, so you don’t have to stand in a check-in line if you don’t have to. It also cuts down on the number of surfaces you may have to touch.
Now here’s what to do when you get to the airport.
Marcus: So I’m at the airport. Smooth sailing, I gotta say, I went through security in a matter of minutes.
Saunders: We’re at JFK Terminal 5, and … it’s almost empty. But then again, it is also 5 a.m.
Gupta: The thing to remember is that every airport and every airline will have a different policy. Your experience will depend on a number of things: what time you fly, where you fly, how long your flight is.
I recently went to one of the world’s busiest airports — Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta. I wanted to see what that experience would be like. And as soon as I entered the terminal, I could tell things were very different. There were certain precautions like Plexiglas shields in front of the counters, there were social distancing stickers on the floor telling people where to stand in line.
And here’s what it was like when I went through security.
TSA security agent: Good morning, sir. Just need to see your ID card, please.
Gupta: Yup, alright.
TSA security agent: Go ahead and put that in the machine, sir.
Gupta: One thing to keep in mind. Try and count how many surfaces you touch throughout the whole process.
One study found that the biggest germ hotspot for respiratory viruses in the entire airport is those security bins.
Second bin that I’m touching.
TSA security agent: Thank you, sir.
Gupta: And I got my hand sanitizer. You saw how many surfaces I just touched. So this is when I do a little sanitizer.
The good news is that TSA [US Transportation Security Administration] says you can now bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in your carry-on luggage. For other kinds of liquid, the standard limit is still 3.4 ounces.
Gate announcement: Once again as a reminder, we do ask for your cooperation to social distance here at the gate.
Marcus: So we’re about to board here, and the gate’s pretty crowded, surprisingly so. I wouldn’t know we are in the midst of a pandemic right now. So I hope it’s OK on board.
Gupta: Getting on the plane — here’s where it gets more difficult to maintain physical distance.
Though airlines are seeing fewer passengers, they’ve also slashed their routes and their schedules, and that leads to fuller flights than what you might expect.
United has said that it will notify customers in advance if their flights are more than 70% full and allow them to rebook or exchange their flights for credits through June 30. Meanwhile, Delta will cap seating at 60% in the main cabin.
Flight announcement: Group number 6, you’re invited to board.
Gupta: Some airlines are also boarding the back of the plane first, 10 people at a time, to limit contact between passengers. And most major airlines are now requiring masks as well.
Now when you get on the plane, try and take the window seat if you can. That way you’re gonna have less contact with people walking down the aisle. It’s all about trying to reduce your exposure.
Marcus: So I’m seated and it looks like any other flight, and I decided to do a window seat. I was advised by people that was the better bet. But the big mystery right now is will we have someone in this middle seat? It is empty right now. Fingers crossed.
Gupta: Airlines have different ways of handling seating capacity on planes nowadays. Delta and JetBlue are leaving all middle seats empty, while American Airlines is blocking half of them.
And United says it’s making some middle seats unavailable for passengers to select. But it’s also saying that it’s not reducing capacity on flights, which means you could still be seated in a middle seat if necessary.
Again, every airline is different. Right now, there are no federal guidelines that require airlines to leave empty seats.
So make sure you know what your airline’s policy is before you board.
The thing is, airlines just can’t afford to cap seating for the long term.
The International Air Transport Association said that while it supports the use of masks by passengers and crews, it doesn’t support mandating social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty.
Marcus: All right, so this is basically a packed flight, but by some miracle, there is no one in the middle seat. So I feel very fortunate. And that puts me at a little bit more at ease.
Gupta: A lot of airlines are also wiping down and disinfecting surfaces more frequently. But it never hurts to wipe down your own seat and high-touch surfaces, such as tray tables, once you get on the flight.
Saunders: OK. Here are our seats, get out our Clorox wipes. I’m wiping down our handrests. Headrests.
Gupta: Another tip when you’re on the plane. You know that little nozzle above your seat that regulates air? Turn that on. That’s going to cause some turbulent airflow in front of you and possibly break up any clouds of the virus.
Now even though airplanes are an enclosed space where many people are crowded together for long periods of time, it may not be as risky as you think because of the air filters.
Here’s Erin Bromage again.
Bromage: Modern airplanes have quite amazing air filtration systems. When the plane is actually flying, it is actually taking air from outside and bringing it inside. And it can turn over the entire cabin volume of air every four or so minutes.
In addition to that, you actually have a filtration system, a HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filtration system that will filter right down to single viral sizes that will pull those viruses out of the air in respiratory droplets or even smaller.
Flight attendant: Hi, how are you? Would you like a snack bag today?
Gupta: Some airlines have canceled onboard food and beverage services completely, while some are handing out packaged snacks.
So what should you do about food on a plane?
Bromage: So general recommendations for food and snacks. If you’re on a short-haul flight, is just bring your own. Any exchange that you have with a person is a potential opportunity for the virus to jump from them to you.
On the longer ones, you can be fairly certain that any food that is served hot will not be a vector for the virus to get to you.
Flight attendant: Flight attendants verified, disarm doors, stand by for all call.
Gupta: So you’ve gone through your flight, the plane has landed, but it’s not over yet — now comes another challenge: getting off the plane.
Bromage: Boarding is fairly controlled. But disembarking is terrible. Everyone is trying to get off the plane at the same time. You’re all funneled through either one or two doorways. And aisle ways. And lots of touching. That was not one of my favorite times.
The simplest thing to do would be to sit and wait out and then walk off. But the quality on an aircraft deteriorates when it’s on the ground and it’s not getting that exchange air from the engine so there’s a plus and a minus that goes with that.
Gupta: What happens next really depends on your destination and the status of the virus there. If you fly to Norway, for example, there is a 14-day quarantine when you land.
And the same goes in 20 US states — like Hawaii or Massachusetts. That’s either a suggested or required quarantine period.
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So if that’s not part of your travel plans, you’re going to need to think about these things ahead of time.
For now at least, flying isn’t as simple as it once was.
When I was at the airport, I asked Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch what he thought of all these changes.
Whenever there’s big change happening in a society, there’s always sort of the cultural part of it and there’s the procedural part of it.
Do you think that this is a cultural change or are people just going through the motions right now?
Bill Lentsch, chief customer experience, Delta Air Lines: My sense is there is some cultural change going on, there is some conditioning. Because on board our airplanes our requirement is to wear masks.
Our flight attendants are not finding a need to remind people to wear their masks. They’re coming on board and they’re doing what is necessary.
So I think there is some conditioning of the customer that’s going on here that may become more of a cultural norm in the future.
Marcus: My flights didn’t make me feel as safe as I would have liked. They were way too crowded for my taste.
I know the airlines are doing their best to enforce social distancing, but it’s really difficult because people just do what they want to do. And flight attendants aren’t police officers.
This is gonna be case by case for people, and it’s really gonna be about their risk tolerance. It was worth it for me. But that might not be the case for everyone.
Gupta: Our producers Megan and Zoë are currently in self-quarantine for the next two weeks to keep everyone in their homes as safe as possible.
Airports and airplanes are going to look very different for the time being. We’re going to have to rethink whether or not we should get on a plane, and how to stay as safe as possible if we do. And if you do decide to fly, follow these tips and do as much as you can to mitigate the risk.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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