A woman on an escalator in an airport looking at her smartphone and holding on to a rolling suitcase

It may be the middle of summer, but few of us are flying in this time of COVID-19. Air travel is down about 80 percent from the same time last year, and airports have turned into ghost towns.

But up in the air, some flyers might feel like they’ve time-traveled back to the old days of packed planes, stressed-out crew members, and even the odd case of air rage.

Even as many planes remain grounded, seats are filling up on the aircraft that are still in service. Recent incidents, confirmed by photos posted on social media by angry passengers, show that airlines in some cases are ignoring advice from health experts—and in some cases, even their own rules, which in the absence of federal mandates can differ airline to airline, particularly regarding middle seats.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that staying home is the best way to prevent yourself or others from getting sick. Even so, the agency has said that “most viruses do not spread easily on flights.” The industry trade group Airlines for America, which represents major North American airlines, says that’s because carriers have hospital-grade ventilation systems to filter air.

More on Travel and the Coronavirus

Though it may seem like a plane is a perfect environment for an outbreak calamity, it's probably safer than other enclosed spaces because of the air filtration system, according to Erin Bromage, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who's written extensively on infectious disease. Airplane air is fully exchanged every 3 to 5 minutes, he says.

But human behavior also plays a role, says Dan Carlin, M.D., a former U.S. Navy chief medical officer who has treated infectious diseases and is founder of WorldClinic, a telemedicine platform. 

“Distancing and mask wearing are the most important things we can do to protect ourselves and others,” Carlin says, and the former shouldn’t be optional when flying. That airlines have inconsistent policies on seating “is very confusing, especially when passengers are already concerned about flying.”  

For consumers considering a trip, the decision involves more than prices and the flight schedules. How can they practice social distancing at 35,000 feet?

Up in the Air

On July 2 the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration issued guidance on coronavirus protection to airports and airlines in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. It covered a wide range of possible actions on everything from temperature checks to personal protection equipment but didn't include any proposed federal mandates. Instead, it was left up to individual airlines to make their own decisions on COVID-19 precautions.

And that’s exactly what has happened. Airlines differ widely on their policies, with some carriers, such as Delta and JetBlue, promising to block middle seats for an extended period of time while others, like United, filling planes to near capacity (although they do alert flyers in advance and offer to rebook them without charge).

Even though all airlines require passengers and crews to wear face coverings, it’s not being enforced consistently. Airlines say that's because they have few options if someone removes their mask midflight. As of this writing, only one U.S. airline, Frontier, says it will divert a flight if a passenger disobeys the edict. Others say the only punishment they can safely mete out is simply to ban the offender from future flights.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., says he plans to introduce a bill to ban the use of middle seats on airlines. And consumer advocates, including CR, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents almost 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines, have called on the DOT to go further and require masks for passengers, backed with the threat of penalties. Consumer Reports advocates have collected more than 55,000 signatures on a petition calling on the DOT to set mandatory, enforceable health and safety rules to be applied uniformly on all U.S. airline flights. 

In the petition, CR calls the current web of conflicting rules a “free-for-all” that threatens passengers’ health. “This is just too critical an issue to leave up to individual airlines to decide,” says William J. McGee, CR’s aviation adviser. “This isn’t like they’re competing on who has the best airport lounges. Health is a safety issue, and the DOT and FAA are failing us.”

The mixed messaging isn’t helping win back customers. In June a CR nationally representative survey that focused on the COVID-19 pandemic asked more than 1,000 U.S. adults how safe they would feel doing various activities. CR found that 7 out of 10 Americans would feel unsafe traveling by plane today. (Thirty-eight percent said “very unsafe,” and 32 percent said “somewhat unsafe.”) More Americans think traveling by plane right now is unsafe than those who think doing any of the other activities asked about are unsafe (including going to an emergency room or voting in person at a polling place).

Questions to Ask

Previous efforts to attach air passenger protections to a $50 billion airline bailout package that passed Congress earlier in the pandemic failed. And airlines say they’re facing financial ruin due to the crisis and are sure to fight any move to add such protections in the new bill. 

In the meantime, though it's best to avoid flying or other travel unless it's unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to help safeguard your health if you must fly. 

Start by asking the right questions when you book your trip. Try to get an agent on the phone (which can be difficult these days) or use the chat function to get answers to the following questions:

  • Does the airline guarantee that you’ll be next to an empty middle seat? Or does it have a limit on capacity? If it doesn't, and if a flight is close to filling up, does it notify passengers in advance and offer an alternative flight at no additional cost?  

  • How strictly does it enforce the mask-wearing requirement? Will crew members deny boarding to someone who shows up at the gate without a mask and refuses to accept one? If a passenger flouts the rule after the plane is airborne, can his or her seatmates request to be moved?

  • How often are planes deep-cleaned, and what does it entail? At a minimum, all surfaces should be wiped down between flights, with a more thorough disinfecting overnight.

Flying Tips

In addition to asking the right questions, it's also important to follow certain precautions, from packing your bags at home to when you deplane. 

Bring snacks and cleaning supplies. Many restaurants and stores in airports have shut down, and inflight food and beverage service has been significantly curtailed, too. So bring snacks and an empty water bottle that you can refill at hydration stations beyond security. CR’s McGee says you should load up on disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. In a positive development, the Transportation Security Administration has relaxed the 3.4-ounce limit on liquids to allow passengers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer. Bring multiple masks, too, in case one gets damaged or soiled. 

Use the restroom before you get on the plane. Airport restrooms may be safer than the very tight space of the one onboard if you practice social distancing of at least 6 feet, wear a cloth face mask, and wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after touching any surface. But if you have to use the airplane toilet, keep your mask on “in case the last person didn’t keep theirs on the entire time or may have coughed,” says Rebecca W. Acosta, R.N., M.P.H., executive director of Traveler’s Medical Service of New York. Bring your disinfectant wipes with you to wipe down any surface you touch. Follow up by using hand sanitizer. 

Clean your space. Once you’ve settled in, wipe down the area around you—armrest, tray table, window shade, even the air nozzle above you—in short, anything that can be touched. And when you’ve finished, sanitize your hands. “There is no excuse not to be using lots of hand sanitizer at every opportunity,” Acosta says. “It’s the ‘keep your hands clean’ thing your mom always told you, but you should notch it up. And if you’re going to eat or drink something, always wash your hands.” 

Avoid crowding when boarding and deplaning. “It’s ridiculous that everyone jams the aisle as soon as that seat-belt sign goes off” upon arrival, says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. 

One final tip: Blast purified air from the air vent above you directly on your face for the entire flight.