• Larissa Lowthorp

Flying during COVID-19? My pandemic travel experience

Are you dreaming to get away and wonder about flying during the pandemic? I recently did just that! Weighing the risks and options is a highly personal decision. 😷

I recently took a long weekend in LA - my first time traveling in 6 months. I definitely needed it. 🌴🌊 This ocean view from Palos Verdes is to die for!

It wasn't an easy decision to come to, and the decision to fly was made by committee after discussion with those with whom I'm in close contact. After talking it through with my loved ones, we decided that, if responsible precautions were taken, it would be okay to fly. We researched protocols at both MSP and LAX, as well as stay-at-home protocols. We formulated a plan for what to take, what to wear, what PPE equipment to wear and how to react to potential exposure. We felt that it was overly cautious, but nobody wants to get sick or have a forced hospitalization.

What I saw and learned at the airport, is that air travel during the pandemic is much like car travel at any time - you can take all of the precautions in the world, but the actions of others around you weigh in heavily, as not everyone chooses to mask themselves or respect personal space. Additionally, there are so many more shared touch points at airports that can't be avoided. I brought a plastic shopping bag of sanitizer, soap and PPE with me, extra masks and gloves, because I was unsure of what to expect.

None of this was counted against my hand luggage allowance. When I landed, I put my clothes in a separate bag to watch and took a shower immediately. I popped into the loo to wash hands at the airport whenever possible. Many times, mask compliance was assumed, but not strictly enforced. Very few people wore gloves - several wore face shields. I personally travelled with N-95 masks to mitigate risk, and I noticed a number of other passengers did the same. Myself and my mother are at higher risk for infection - and more than the virus itself, we are concerned about potential tracking, tracing, and - if hospitalized - medical decisions that are out of our control. I would also not want to be the cause of infection to others.

Flying wasn't as odd as I might have expected. Fewer people overall, almost everyone in masks. Check in and boarding process was pretty standard.

Security asked me to lift my mask once to validate ID. Full service check in was available if needed. LAX restaurants were closed...the one open shop in my terminal wasn't selling food; I had to walk to a different terminal for water. I counted people: it averaged out that about 39 in 40 people wore a mask.

They suggest bringing an empty, refillable water bottle with you past security, but I forgot! TSA allows a 12-oz container of sanitizer per passenger. Airlines require all passengers be masked prior to boarding.

There were stickers on the floor indicating the preferred distance to keep but most people didn't attempt to socially distance 2m when queuing up to board - and the gap between those who did was quickly filled by other passengers. I expected perhaps a more orderly de-planing process with dismissal by row, but as usual, as soon as we stopped, passengers crammed the aisle.

There was no food or beverage service on my flight - it's suspended for all domestic flights. Passengers were required to take assigned seats at boarding, middle seats were not blocked. Prior to takeoff, attendants gave people the option to move to empty rows and spaced seating if they wanted.

Both flights were half to 3/4 full. I had a row to myself on my outbound flight. Masks weren't strictly enforced on the way to LA, but it was more controlled on the way back. Wearing a mask for 4 hours became pretty uncomfortable.

Mandatory quarantine isn't required in my home state of Minnesota. I've been home for a week, and laying low. I feel fine, but though some friends and colleagues have been ready to begin visiting face-to-face, I would not want to take the risk of being an asymptomatic carrier and unintentionally transmitting illness to others. That would be selfish and careless, though people I have spoken with would be willing to meet up. It's not a risk I can take.

According to Business Insider, a recent MIT study found that odds of contracting COVID-19 as a passenger on a full flight is 1 in 4,300, compared to 1 in 7,700 on a flight with empty middle seats. Factoring in a 1% mortality rate, the risk of dying from COVID-19 contracted on a full flight is 1 in 430,000, while on a flight with blocked middle seats it's just 1 in 770,000. Would you fly now or will you wait it out?


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