Now that nationwide mask mandates for passengers on airplanes and in airports have vanished, Americans with upcoming air travel bookings are faced with the question of how to keep themselves safe while tightly packed into a sealed metal tube with hundreds of maskless strangers.
After two years of deriving some confidence from the fact that people around us are wearing face coverings and generally keeping their distance, the change can be somewhat startling. Travelers who are still concerned about the threat of COVID-19 might wonder whether they’d be better off postponing or canceling their trip.
Major U.S. airlines have stated that they would work with passengers who felt uncomfortable flying in light of the lifted mask mandate on a case-by-case basis in order to rebook or cancel their trips and provide flight credits or, in rare cases, even refunds. But, experts told Travel + Leisure (T+L) that travelers don’t necessarily need to feel unsafe if they take personal precautions.
Dr. Deborah Theodore, an infectious diseases specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, told the outlet that there are still ways for travelers to protect themselves, even if others around them aren’t doing the same.
The first and most crucial step is to get fully vaccinated, she said. After that, the second most important safeguard is to continue wearing your own mask, even if those around you aren’t.
“I don’t think the average person needs to feel unsafe flying,” Theodore said. “The average person should feel comfortable wearing a mask and going about their business… We can take measures to protect ourselves, but also explore.”
Although the federal mask mandate on public transportation was struck down by a U.S. district court judge in mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reaffirmed its recommendation that travelers wear well-fitting facial coverings while on public transportation, including in airports and train stations. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is also in the process of appealing the Florida judge’s ruling on behalf of the CDC.
Here is what health experts are recommending to keep yourself safe if you’re planning to fly any time soon.
Keep Your COVID-19 Vaccinations Updated
Experts agree that making sure you’re fully vaccinated—and boosted, if necessary—is the single most important way people can protect themselves while traveling.
“The most important parts in terms of protection are making sure you’re up to date with vaccinations,” Theodore said. “That’s really key to protect you in case you do get infected to make sure you have a mild infection.”
Wear Your Mask Throughout the Journey
Plenty of passengers will opt to ditch their masks during flights and in airports, but doctors advise those who wish to protect themselves against infection to continue wearing one anyway.
“You can’t control what people around you are doing, but picking a good quality mask that is well-fitting and that is reasonably comfortable for you to wear the whole flight… really will protect you from breathing an infectious virus,” Theodore said. She also emphasized the extra importance of remaining masked at points when the risk of transmission is especially high, such as during the boarding process, “when everyone is crammed trying to get on the plane.”
Dr. Jessica Shepherd, the chief medical officer at Verywell Health, told T+L that bringing your mask down for any duration increases risk. “When you’re eating, bring it down to ingest your food, and even while chewing bring it back up,” she advised. “And that’s just following the best precautions… the most they can do [to] minimize their risk of transmission.”
Opt For a Direct Flight
Direct flights shorten the amount of time spent traveling, as well as limit the number of places where you could be exposed to the virus, such as connecting airports and second or third airplanes.
“If you’re breaking your flight up, you’re spending more time overall in crowded settings and you have the boarding process going on twice,” Theodore said. “The longer you’re in a crowded setting, the more exposure you’re getting.”
Maintain Good Hand Hygiene
It’s a message we’ve heard throughout the pandemic. Washing or sanitizing your hands frequently and thoroughly is one of your best protections against contracting COVID-19.
“In travel, being in the airport, even on the plane, take the opportunity to use hand sanitizer or—the best way—hand washing,” Shepherd said. She also recommended doing a quick wash or sanitizing your hands right before you eat anything.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
More people are returning to the skies for their “revenge travel” trips, but Shepherd said, travelers can minimize risk by selecting flights scheduled at times when planes are likely to be less full. They can try to purchase seats where there will be fewer people close to them, and consider upgrading to gain a bit more room and possibly a smaller cabin.
“There are times of the day that will be heavier than others,” Shepherd said. “The fewer number of seats adjacent to your seat will be less risky to transmission.”
Source: Travel Plus