10 Tips for Avoiding Germs on Flights

Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic raises valid concerns for domestic and international travel. As the number of cases keeps increasing in some parts of the world, travel restrictions won’t be relaxed anytime soon. Airlines are postponing and canceling flights globally, but for many individuals, travel remains an essential function.

Some people have already put their plans on hold to reduce the risk of infection, but if you absolutely need to travel by air, here are several helpful tips to avoid germs at the airport and inside the airplane.

1. Use the online check-in before arriving at the airport.

Skip the line at the airport counter and avoid unnecessary contact by checking in to your flight online. Many airlines allow passengers to check in up to 24 hours before their flight’s departure. It’s the safest and most comfortable option, and you’ll also steer clear of the germs on self-service check-in kiosks.

2. Choose a window seat on the plane.

When reserving your seat during the ticket-buying or check-in process, the one you choose makes a difference in your potential exposure to germs. Some airlines have chosen to leave the middle seats empty, leaving you with two other options in a typical medium-sized plane. Passengers in window seats are exposed to the fewest people during an average flight, so that’s your best bet. Avoid booking the aisle seats, which pose the highest risk of contact with multiple people.

3. Wear a face mask.

Properly wearing face masks and cloth face coverings are essential to reducing the spread of the coronavirus and other pathogens. It protects you and everyone else, too. Several airlines are making face coverings mandatory because social distancing measures are much more difficult to maintain inside the aircraft.

“It’s important to remember that all of the new guidance we’ve got used to over the past few months, like social distancing and hygiene measures, still apply when you travel,” travel expert and 5 Star Villa Holidays founder John Paul Donnelly tells Mental Floss.

4. Keep items stored inside your bag at security checkpoints.

The plastic bins for personal belongings are also used by other travelers, increasing your potential exposure to germs. Instead of emptying the contents of your pockets into the bins, it’s better if you keep your phone, wallet, and other loose belongings inside your bag. You’ll also avoid a pat-down by having removed anything that will set off the alarms.

5. Bring enough disinfectant wipes and alcohol-based sanitizer.

At least the chairs are socially distanced at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.Daryl DeHart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anticipate all your travel needs beforehand. Donnelly says that sanitizing wipes, disinfecting alcohol and sanitizers, and face masks are now as essential to travel as passports and luggage, so pack these necessary items in your carry-on bag. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is allowing bottles of hand sanitizer measuring 12 ounces or less to be brought aboard planes in carry-on luggage, but all other containers of gel or liquid must be less than 3.4 ounces to pass U.S. security screening. Be sure to check TSA regulations before you fly, and plan to have enough sanitizer to disinfect your hands, cellphone, and immediate environment when you board the plane.

6. Refrain from touching your face.

A small behavioral observation study in 2015 revealed that people touch their faces an average of 23 times per hour. Face-touching is very instinctive—people often don’t realize they’re doing it. But during this pandemic, you need to avoid it as much as possible to reduce the spread of germs. Even if you haven’t touched any public surfaces, just don’t do it.

7. Take advantage of cashless transactions.

Some airport stores allow electronic payments from digital wallets. This kind of transaction, along with recent technological innovations such as virtual boarding passes and online check-ins, reduces unnecessary contact while traveling. Even though there’s a low probability [PDF] of virus transmission through money, it’s still overloaded with germs that you wouldn’t want to hold on to. According to Donnelly, eliminating the chances of contact is vital for the travel industry as it adapts to the pandemic.

8. Stay away from crowds.

This may be easier said than done, but there are a few ways you can keep a safe distance between yourself and others. Maintain a six-foot physical distance when lining up for security checkpoints or offloading luggage. Donnelly suggests minimizing your movement around the airport, so stay put as much as you can. While waiting to board the plane, choose a seat in the waiting area at least six feet away from anyone else—or stand apart from a crowded seating arrangement. Try to board last so you can avoid queuing in narrow walkways along with the other passengers.

9. Disinfect high-touch surfaces at your seat on the plane.

Although airlines are enhancing their cleaning routines, you should still sanitize your immediate environment on your own. Disinfect the high-touch surfaces like the armrest, tray table, seatbelt buckle, headrest, and seat and screen controls. Research has shown that the novel coronavirus may last two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, so clean everything that previous passengers could have possibly touched before you sat down.

10. Turn on the overhead air vent.

The frequent passenger turnaround can be a concern in enclosed environments such as airplanes, but as Donnelly says, “most large airplanes have sophisticated filtration systems [PDF] in place, which means the air is likely to be cleaner than in other confined spaces.” For extra protection from viruses and germs remaining in the air, turn on the overhead vent. It creates an air barrier around your seat that can disperse potentially harmful particles into the plane’s filtration system, where they will be neutralized.

Wherever you’re going, remember to exercise caution every step of the way. A little more attention to detail will keep you from compromising your health.

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Just How Clean Is the Air On an Airplane?

Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leylanr/iStock via Getty Images

For millions of Americans and millions more abroad, the excitement of booking a flight has turned into concern. Being stuffed into an airplane cabin with hundreds of other people for hours at a time seems like a risk in light of the coronavirus continuing to be a threat to public health.

According to experts, plane travel is indeed a risk, and much of that risk has to do with social proximity. But the air itself might be cleaner than you think.

In a piece for Condé Nast Traveler, author William J. McGee writes that many airplanes have highly effective air cleaning systems that use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filtration to remove 99.97 percent of airborne contaminants, including viruses. (But not all. Some regional airlines may not have HEPA devices.) The clean air is pumped in through the ceiling and leaves below the window seats. The air is roughly 60 percent fresh and 40 percent filtered and recirculated constantly.

Would this impact how coronavirus or other germs may spread? Theoretically, yes. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations caution that no air filtration system can make up for being seated within a few feet of an infected person. It’s entirely possible that their germs will make their way to you before the circulating air removes them. And filtration isn’t a factor when travelers are standing near each other in line to board the aircraft.

Viruses aren’t the only air quality concern onboard a plane. Fumes from engine oil, hydraulic fluid, exhaust, and other sources can travel into the cabin. Pesticide applications may also leave a lingering odor.

The bottom line? If you have to be stuck in an enclosed space with several strangers, an airplane cabin might be the safest way to go about it. But variables like infected passengers, mask habits, and proximity make it impossible for anyone to offer assurances about safety. If you have a desire or need to fly, wearing a mask and keeping as much distance as possible between yourself and other passengers is the best way to approach it.

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