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Do you still have to fly? Epidemiologist and scientist with exposure guide you through the decision-making process – A raw history



We don’t know about you, but we are ready to travel. And that usually means flying.

We thought through this question as mothers and as an exposure scientist and infectious disease epidemiologist. Although we have personally decided that we will not be flying at the moment, we will take you through our thought process on what to consider and how to minimize the risks.

Why the fear of flying?

The main concern for flying – or traveling by bus or train – is to sit within six feet of an infected person. Remember: Even asymptomatic people can transmit. The risk of infection directly corresponds to your dose of exposure, which is determined by the length of time you are exposed to and the amount of virus-infected droplets in the air.

A secondary problem is contact with contaminated surfaces. When an infected person contaminates a shared armrest, airport toilet handle, seat tray or other object, the virus can survive for hours, although it degrades over time. If you touch this surface and then touch your mouth or nose, you run the risk of infection.

Before you book, think

Although there is no way to make air travel 1

00% safe, there are ways to make it safer. It is important to consider the details of each trip.

One approach to making your decisions is to use what occupational health experts call a hierarchy of control. This approach does two things. It focuses on close-up exposure control strategies. Second, it minimizes how much you have to rely on individual human behavior to control exposure. It is important to remember that you can be contagious and everyone around you can be infected.

The best way to control exposure is to eliminate the hazard. Since we can’t remove the new coronavirus, ask yourself if you can remove the trip. Consider further if you are older or have pre-existing conditions, or if you are going to visit someone in this position.

If you are healthy and those you visit are healthy, consider ways to replace the danger. Is it possible to drive? This will allow you to have more control over minimizing your exposures, especially if the distance is less than a day of travel.

You go, now what?

If you decide to fly, check the airline’s rules for seats and boarding. Some minimize capacity and distance between passengers by not using medium seats and having empty rows. Others board from the back of the plane. Some who have been criticized for running their planes to capacity have announced plans to allow customers to cancel their flights if the flight exceeds 70% passenger capacity.

Federal and state directions are constantly changing, so be sure to look for the latest directions from government agencies and airlines and the airport that you use for additional advice and current rules or restrictions.

While this may sound the opposite, consider booking a few shorter flights. This will reduce the likelihood of having to use the toilet and the duration of exposure of an infected person on the aircraft.

After booking, select a window seat if possible. If you mean the circle with a radius of six feet around you, the presence of a wall on one side would directly reduce the number of people you are exposed to during the flight by half, not to mention all the people who climb up and down the the path.

Also, check with your airline to see their technical controls, which are designed or implemented in practice to isolate hazards. These include ventilation systems, on-board bulkheads and electrostatic disinfection sprays in flight.

When the ventilation system in airplanes is operating, the airplanes have a very high ratio of outside clean air to recirculated air – about 10 times higher than most commercial buildings. Plus, most aircraft ventilation systems have HEPA filters. They are at least 99.9% effective in removing particles with a diameter of 0.3 microns and more effective in removing smaller and larger particles.

A passenger at Pittsburgh International Airport travels through security on May 7, 2020.
Jeff Swansen / Getty Image

How to be safe from the shuttle to the seat

From registration, going through security to uploading, you will touch many surfaces. To minimize risk:

  • Wear wipes to disinfect surfaces such as your seat belt and personal belongings, such as your passport. If you can’t find handkerchiefs, bring a small towel soaked in bleach solution into a zippered bag. This will probably scare the TSA less than your personal spray bottle, and the viruses are unlikely to grow on a bleach towel. But remember: more bleach is no better and can be dangerous. You only need one tablespoon in four glasses of water to be effective.

  • Carry plastic zippered bags for personal belongings that other people can handle, such as your ID card. Carry extra bags so you can put these things in a new bag once you have the opportunity to disinfect them.

  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as often as you can. While soap and water are most effective, hand sanitizer is useful after washing to get parts you may have missed.

  • Once you get to your window seat, stay put.

  • Wear a mask. If you already have an N95 respirator, consider using it, but others may also provide protection. We do not recommend buying N95 until healthcare providers provide adequate supplies. Technically it also needs to be tested to make sure you are in good shape. We do not recommend the use of gloves, as this can lead to a false sense of security and is associated with reduced hand hygiene practices.

If you plan to fly with children, there are special considerations. Getting a small child to stick to wearing a mask and maintain good hygiene at home is difficult enough; it may be impossible to do this while flying. Children under 2 years of age should not wear a mask.

Every day we are all constantly faced with decisions for our own personal comfort at risk. Arming yourself with specific knowledge about your airport and airline and making the most of the security measures you control can reduce your risk. A good analogy might be that every time you get in the car to drive somewhere, there is a risk of an accident, but there is a big difference between driving a speed limit with a seat belt and driving blindfolded, 60 miles per hour in the middle of the city.


You may also be interested in other parts of this series:The conversation

Casey Ernst, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Arizona and Paloma Bimmer, Associate Professor of Environmental Health, University of Arizona

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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