Air travel during the pandemic: what should I know – and how safe is it?

June 23, 2020
TAT looks to spur domestic travel
June 23, 2020

countries around the world gradually allow businesses to reopen, domestic and international air travel is also restarting. China and US, the world’s two largest air travel markets, for example, have recently eased travel restrictions, with an eye toward reviving trade and tourism.

But in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, cure, or uniformly-implemented health and safety guidelines, travelers are bound to contemplate the risks of air travel. What must they know if they do decide to get on an airplane, and what can they expect at the airport?

What are the risks of transmission when it comes to air travel?

Qingyan Chen The coronavirus can be transmitted by respiratory droplets, which can be classified as large and small.Advertisement

Large droplets, expelled by coughing, can travel up to 6ft. In an air cabin, these can land on surfaces like arm rests, tray tables, and seat bags, putting passengers at risk of getting sick – if they touch droplets from a person infected with coronavirus.

There is also the risk of transmission if, say, an infected passenger coughs into their hand and then shakes another person’s hand without hand-washing.

Studies show small droplets can be air-borne in the aircraft cabin from several minutes to several hours if passengers cough or talk.

With current aircraft cabin ventilation systems, small droplets can stay in the cabin for about four minutes before they can be extracted by the air-conditioning system. During that time, small droplets can travel to passengers seated in the same row, and if they’re carrying the virus, they can make them sick.

Is leaving the middle seat open an effective measure?

Chen I think leaving a middle seat empty can reduce the risk of transmission. However, the effectiveness of the measure is closely linked to the use of face masks.

N95 respirator masks filter out about 90% of large and small air-borne droplets. But our research shows that they are slightly less effective than that because they are not a perfect fit on all human faces.

If passengers are traveling without a vacant middle seat, it might be crucial for all to be wearing an N95 mask to reduce the risk of transmission. They could also wear surgical masks, which are only about 50 to 80% effective at filtering out droplets. All this to say that leaving the middle seat empty helps a lot.

What precautions can airlines take to ensure safety?

Chen When you travel by plane, you might take multiple other modes of private or public transportation – like buses, trains, cars – to get to and from the airport.

Among all the scenarios I mentioned, the risk of transmission inside the aircraft cabin might be the lowest. That’s because airplanes use a hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filter that ensures air inside the cabin is either fresh or recirculated.Advertisement

Trains, buses and cars do not use hepa filters. So disinfection will be super important for passengers to regain travel confidence.

What about travelers?

Chen I would wear a mask from door to door, and maintain social distance whenever I can. Inside an airplane cabin, I would disinfect all the surfaces I may touch with disinfectant wipes. I would stagger eating and drinking with co-passengers to avoid everyone taking down their masks at the same time.

While choosing airlines, I would choose an airline that has opted to block middle seats and provide surgical masks to passengers and that gives me some sense of confidence that the airplanes are disinfected thoroughly.

There are airlines who have done very little. I would not book travel with them. It’s especially a red flag if wearing a mask is not mandatory.

When can I start booking international travel again?

Brian Pearce Restarting international travel will depend on the confidence of health authorities in the state of domestic transmission of the virus. It will involve government confidence in accepting travelers from other countries, and that confidence replacing the fear of importing the virus.

Around the world, we may see “travel bubbles” or “air bridges” connecting adjacent countries in the same continent later this year. But that, of course, is subject to a second wave of the virus in the fall.

What can other countries learn from China?

Steve Saxon I started traveling domestically in China again at the end of April. Many airports in China are using thermal imaging technology to check passengers’ temperatures, and relying on color-coded health code system to track passenger history and movement.

China did not open up air travel until it stopped reporting new domestic cases. Travel policies have relaxed because there is confidence in the fact that there have been no new domestic cases.[Editor’s note: A cluster of new cases sprung up in Beijing this month.]

That said, everyone is wearing masks. It is mandated.


  • Brian Pearce, chief economist, International Air Travel Association
  • Steve Saxon, Shenzhen expert partner, McKinsey
  • Qingyan Chen, professor of mechanical engineering, Purdue University

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