Let’s start with a moment of transparency: it is deliberately misleading for the title of this post to imply that holiday air travel is even a thing, here in the waning months of Year One of the coronavirus pandemic.
Call it a sprinkle of SEO pixie dust, intended to elevate the search rankings on this important public service announcement for all those who are still making winter travel plans.
Now that you’re here, we must add our voice to the swelling chorus imploring you—for the sake of all those you love, and many more you will never meet—to postpone holiday travel until COVID infection rates return to less scary levels.
But if you really, really must travel—if you are delivering a donated kidney, for example—we will also provide the promised tips on how to fly as safely as possible in the time of COVID.
Stay home for the holidays
If you’ve been on a media fast in a remote jungle for the past few months, you might not know that the entire United States is in the midst of a severe coronavirus outbreak.
The situation right now is far more dire than it was during the lockdown of March and April. The curve we were trying to flatten continues to climb peak after peak—and the hospital capacity and healthcare workers we’ve been trying to protect are at the brink of exhaustion.
All of this, plus the weather driving people indoors, means that the winter of 2020–21 is shaping up to be an extremely successful one for the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, which spreads like warm butter at the small indoor gatherings that are driving the current outbreak.
The COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool brings these risks into vivid focus by showing the chances of encountering someone who is positive for COVID at an event in your area.
The nationwide risk for a ten-person event is estimated at just under 40%, meaning you’d expect to encounter a COVID-positive guest at two out of five Thanksgiving dinner tables nationwide. Mmm, pass the COVID!
Keep in mind that the risk is even higher in many places, like El Paso, Texas and parts of North Dakota, where it’s north of 90%.
With the number of people planning to celebrate Thanksgiving with ten or more people also around 40%, the choices Americans make over the winter holidays could well lead to hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases in the spring.
These frankly terrifying projections are why numerous states are restricting gatherings and travel until the numbers come down.
If you must travel in the time of COVID
- Know the risks. While there are some concerns about the science, experts say that flying, in and of itself, is fairly low risk. Variables include the length of the flight, how closely people are packed, and your own in-flight COVID practices.
- Do your research. Many states and countries have travel restrictions requiring travellers to provide a negative COVID test report before departure. Non-compliance may result in being denied boarding or entry, or facing mandatory quarantine on arrival, so be sure to know the rules before you go.
- Shift to an off-peak time. If you can be flexible, consider shifting to a week when there won’t be so many other people crowding into airports, planes, and other indoor spaces.
- Drive instead of fly. Driving typically takes longer, but you’ll spend less time in close proximity to others. Pack food to minimize stops, and use good COVID hygiene at gas and rest stops. If you do have to stop for the night, either sleep in the car or look for a motel with rooms that open directly to the outdoors.
- Pick your airline and your seat. If flying is the only way to go, book one of the airlines that is blocking middle seats for greater distance between passengers. Look for a seat towards the front of the plane, where you can get on and off the plane quickly, or a window seat, which gives you a little more distance from people moving up and down the aisle.
- Skip the lines. Sign up for TSA PreCheck to avoid long security lines.
- Isolate ahead of time. If you can’t get tested, one way to lower risk is to isolate for 10 days before your trip. This helps ensure that if you do have an asymptomatic infection, it will have passed the contagious stage by the time you leave.
Isolation means not leaving the house and having food and other necessities delivered. It also means avoiding all proximity to others—including household members, unless they too are isolating.
Get tested for travel
- Get the right test. Most destinations that require a pre-travel COVID test specify that it must be a qRT-PCR test from an approved laboratory, conducted within a specific time window, typically 72 hours. This type of test is highly accurate, with samples typically collected via throat or nasal swab.
The faster but less accurate antigen tests or home test kits typically do not fulfill travel requirements. Neither do antibody tests, which show whether you’ve developed an immune response to COVID in the past.
- Find out where to get tested. Look for a location that offers rapid, affordable COVID testing.
- Get your timing right. The qRT-PCR test, which is highly accurate as a general rule, does have a higher rate of false negatives during the seven days right after infection.
Take precautions with air travel
- Pack protective gear. Be sure to bring multiple face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. You’ll want to wear a double mask, or better yet, an N95 mask, which protects better against aerosols than cloth. Be sure to keep your mask on at all times except when you’re eating or drinking.
- Wash your hands. Take every opportunity while traveling to wash or sanitize your hands.
- Bring your own provisions. To minimize contact, be sure to bring your own food and a water bottle to fill once you get through security. Either refrain from eating or drinking on the plane, or put your mask back on right away afterwards.
- Use airport restrooms if possible. The larger, better ventilated rest rooms in the airport are easier to navigate safely when you need to powder your nose or clean your hands than the tiny cramped ones on the plane.
- Wipe down surfaces. Although the CDC says that surfaces are not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads, you may still want to wipe down surfaces that you can’t avoid touching, including seat controls, tray table, and bathroom knobs, just to be extra careful.
- Stay put. Avoid moving around on the plane to keep contact with other passengers to a minimum.
- Use your ventilation. Direct the overhead air vent nozzle towards your face to help keep air circulating around you.
Take precautions once you get there
- Stay on your COVID game. Once you arrive at your location, continue to take standard precautions: wear masks, wash hands, keep your distance, and gather in large, well-ventilated spaces.
- Don’t forget about the return trip. If you’re away for more than a few days, you may need to go through testing and/or quarantine when you return.
Forgoing holiday travel plans is just one more sacrifice demanded by a pandemic that has already taken so much. But right now staying home is one of the biggest things we can do to protect both the ones we love and society as a whole.