WebMD Health News

Air Travel a Puzzle in Age of Coronavirus

photo of cdc working talking to woman

July 1, 2020 -- Sasha Buchanan boarded a Southwest Airlines flight in June at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., bound for Houston to visit her 60-year-old mother and her adopted sister. Buchanan, who has vertigo, is a self-proclaimed germophobe, so she wore a mask and brought her own wipes to clean her seat and area around her. Referring to the chance of spreading the coronavirus to her mother and sister, Buchanan says: “I was careful while I was in Virginia. I didn’t want to bring anything home.” 

Buchanan says she felt safe the whole flight. There were few passengers on board, and Southwest employees and passengers followed guidelines. Flight attendants and passengers wore masks and socially distanced during the flight. 

But planes are expected to get much more crowded, even as coronavirus cases have ramped back up. AAA estimates that Americans will take 700 million trips this summer, the vast majority by car. But airlines are seeing more and more passengers ready to return to the skies.

And some airlines, which had flown with limited capacity to stop the spread of the virus, are ramping back up. Though drawing some criticism for the number of passengers per flight, American and United airlines announced that they will begin booking 100% of flights starting July 1. American says it will waive change fees for customers who want to rebook on a less-than-full flight. Passengers on United have until July 31 to make changes without paying fees.

Whether the plane is full or not, passengers will be required to follow safety protocols to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Airlines Adopt Different Policies

United and American airlines, along with Southwest and Delta, require all passengers to wear cloth face masks or any high-tech masks while on the plane. American goes further by saying passengers must bring their own face masks and must comply with airport rules about wearing a mask. And the company requires face masks to be on before boarding.

Delta, Southwest, and United airlines supply customers with hand sanitizer, wipes, and masks if they do not have them. American does not guarantee that it will supply customers with masks. 

Buchanan says her flight confirmation told her what she needed to do and have before boarding. “I just went through that to see what was required,” she says. “I felt better [knowing what I needed to do.]”

Airlines will penalize customers who do not comply with mask-wearing rules. Delta, Southwest, United, and American have said customers will be removed from the terminal and plane if they do not comply with rules for wearing masks as outlined in their guidelines. 

“As part of this policy, Southwest will deny boarding to any customer choosing not to wear a face mask or covering while traveling with us,” says Brian Parrish, of Southwest’s communications team.

According to a Patch.com article, Delta barred passengers who didn’t follow its mask guidelines. There are exceptions to the rule. Passengers can temporarily remove masks to eat and drink. And Southwest makes exemptions for people who may have medical conditions and cannot wear a mask. 

Airports, Too, Have Differing Rules

But not all airports are following the same rules.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida began requiring masks for anyone in the public areas of the airport on June 26. Others, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest, recommends masks but does not require them.

The Transportation Security Administration recommends that passengers wear masks at airports but does not mandate it. But TSA employees are required to wear masks and gloves.

Protect Yourself

CDC  safety requirements for passengers and staff advise everyone to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. The CDC also recommends that you:

  • Cover face when you cough.
  • Continue to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. 
  • Avoid contact with others and stay 6 feet away.
  • Wear a mask when in public or around other people. 

The CDC notes that travel in general increases the chances of catching the virus. 

“We don’t know if one type of travel is safer than others; however, airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces.”

But the CDC also says that “germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” Delta Air Lines, Southwest, United, and American use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters. 

“HEPA filters are a very high-intensity system of fibers that you essentially run air through to filter out an incredible amount of contaminants -- not just dust, not just bacteria, but moisture, any sort of contamination that could potentially harm or create an atmosphere in the cabin or the cockpit that could harm the passengers or the crews,” writes Zach Wichter, an aviation reporter at The Points Guy, a publication that covers travel. 

Airlines say planes are sanitized before and between flights. Airport employees use electrostatic technology, a gun-like machine that sprays disinfectant, killing most germs. The spray makes the virus less able to spread throughout airplane cabins. 

To help passengers feel safer, Delta has partnered with Mayo Clinic to test employees and advise the company on best practices for flights and for Delta’s gates and workspace at airports.

“This is a journey with no finish line -- and we know that more than three-quarters of customers, when asked, share that regular employee testing will help boost their confidence in travel,” Bill Lentsch, Delta chief customer experience officer, says in a statement. “This is the foundation upon which we will innovate and redefine future travel experiences that ensure we are delivering the safe experiences our customers expect and deserve."

Airline customers should be open to COVID-19 symptom screenings. Delta says employees could do temperature checks using thermal imaging technology or hand-held thermometers, and employees could ask passengers if they have had any symptoms of COVID-19. As of June 30, American Airlines customers will be asked if they have had any COVID-19 symptoms. Since June 10, as part of its online check-in process, United has asked customers to verify if they had COVID-19 symptoms. If they have, airlines advise people to reschedule their flights. 

As the virus continues to spread, airlines and airports encourage passengers keep up with changing information. Due to the spikes in recent coronavirus cases, United, American, Delta, and Southwest have issued new travel advisories. Passengers traveling to New York and New Jersey from Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North and South Carolina, Texas, and Utah should quarantine upon arrival for 14 days. 

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 01, 2020

Sources

TSA.gov: “Coronavirus (COVID-19) information.”

Bizjournalis.com: “American, Southwest take different approaches to seat blocking. Will customers care?”

Travelandleisure.com: “American Airlines, United Airlines to Lift Limits on Seating Capacity.”

Conde Nast Traveler: “How Airlines Are Sanitizing Planes Amid Coronavirus.”

CNN: “Refuse to wear a face mask and these airlines may ban you from future flights.” 

National Public Radio: “United Airlines Adds A Step to Check-In: Stating You Don’t Have COVID-19.”

Patch.com: “No Mask? Delta Passengers Who Refuse To Enter No Fly Zone.” 

Newsroom.aaa.com: “AAA Forecasts Americans will take 700 Million Trips this Summer.”

The Points Guy: “What the Heck is a HEPA Filter? How airplane air stays clean.”

Thehill.com: “Airports Beg Government To Set Face Mask Policy For Passengers.”

CDC.gov: “Considerations For Travelers -- Coronavirus in the US.”

Mayoclinic.org: “Coronavirus travel advice.” 

The New York Times: “Airlines Say It’s Safe To Travel. But Is it? 

Forbes.com: “American Airlines Ditches Social Distancing, Will Book Planes At Full Capacity.”

Forbes.com: “American, United Airlines Will Go Back To Packing Flights Despite Covid-19 Coronavirus”

Skift.com: “U.S. Airlines Cut Flights as Many Corporations Limit Travel.”

WTOP: “Court Upholds Virginia’s Mask Mandate After Challenge From Fauquier Winery Owner.”

Flyreagan.com. 

Flyreagan.com: “Face Coverings.” 

American Airlines.

News.delta.com: “Delta Expands Safety Commitment By Requiring All Customers To Wear Face coverings Across Travel,” “Delta Welcomes Travelers Back With Layers Of Protection For Safe Travel,” “3 Things to Know About Delta’s Mask-wearing Equipment,” “In the bag: New Snack bags Now Onboard For Domestic Delta Travelers,” “Travel Restrictions.” 

Hub.united.com: “United Airlines Strengthens Onboard Mask Policy To Further Protect Passengers And Employees Against Covid19 Spread.”  

united.com: “United CleanPus.”

Southwest.com: “Enhanced cleaning, physical-distancing measures, and equipped Employees,” “Destinations currently experiencing travel disruptions.”

United.com: “Covid 19 Updates.” 

News.aa.com: “American Airlines Expands Its Clean Commitment by Adding Vanderbilt University Medical Center On New Travel Health Advisory Panel.”

Morgan Durrant. 

Brian Parrish, spokesman, Southwest Airlines. 

Sasha Buchanan. 

Mayo Clinic: “Mayo Clinic experts to help guide Delta Air Lines COVID-19 safety measures.”

ATL.com: “COVID19 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.”

Broward.org: “Coronavirus Advisories.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.