How to protect yourself (and others) on a crowded plane — tips from Dr. Le

Apr 30, 2020

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You’ve probably seen in your social feeds that some planes are still packed, despite a Global Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory, and there remain passengers who are traveling without any personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks.

Given the current coronavirus pandemic, this is an understandable reason for concern. U.S. coronavirus cases have now exceeded one million, making up a third of the cases worldwide. Many American have now been stuck at home for almost two entire months in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus. We all miss our lives and want this deadly virus to come to an end.

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With airlines still flying, flight attendants are at a high risk of infection. That’s why the Flight Attendants Association has called for PPE to be mandated while traveling for both flight attendants and passengers. A few — but not all — airlines have answered those calls.

Related: TPG founder Brian Kelly discusses his coronavirus diagnosis

So what should you do if you find yourself on a crowded plane?

We reached out via email to Dr. E Hahn Le, Healthcare Website Media’s Head of Medical Affairs team, to get the scoop on how to protect yourself while traveling in the age of coronavirus. Healthcare Website Media is owned by TPG parent company Red Ventures, and has a ton of resources on coronavirus including on testing.

Here’s what she had to say:

Dr. Le’s responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What should passengers do if they find themselves on a packed flight?

Though air traffic has significantly decreased due to route reductions and an overall decline in demand, a lot of travelers have still found themselves on crowded flights. With 95% of flyers grounded, airlines are canceling and consolidating their remaining flights. In some cases, that results in aircraft that end up fuller than you might expect, making social distancing difficult.

We’ve had several TPG readers write to us expressing how upsetting this is, especially when they’ve specifically booked flights under the impression that there would be space to social distance. Some airlines, like Alaska and Delta, have stopped selling all middle seats all together, but other airlines, like Spirit and American, have stated that middle seats will only be blocked if space and weight limits permit.

Related: How US airlines are handling distancing, masks and more 

So what do you do if you have to travel and you find yourself on a crowded plane?

“Many of the strategies are the same as when a person finds themselves in a crowded space — It’s best to keep your face mask on as much of the flight as possible when physical distancing is not possible.” said Dr. Le.

She also noted that it’s pertinent to practice great hygiene: “You should wash your hands well for at least 30 seconds with soap and water every time you go to the restroom and use a paper towel when touching sink knobs, toilet handles, and door handles.”

As everyone should know by now, you should also “avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth after touching plane surfaces and use antibacterial gel that has at least 60% alcohol if you are not able to wash your hands with soap and water.

“This is particularly important before eating and drinking,” she added.

Finally, Dr. Le advises that travelers should “turn the air vent towards your face so that it will keep the area around you as well-ventilated as possible (given the circumstances).”

What types of precautions can travelers take if they do have to travel?

If you’re in a situation where you absolutely have to travel right now, you’re going to want to take some extra preventative measures to protect yourself (and those around you).

“The best precautions happen before the traveler even takes off,” she said.

Related: How to stay healthy while traveling 

Here’s your new pre-departure checklist:

  • Check for flights that are emptier and that allow you to select your seat (though cancellations are a very real possibility)
  • Select a window seat far from high-traffic areas like the restrooms
  • Pack all of the necessary PPE, including:
    • Multiple face masks (especially if you are wearing a disposable mask that could get easily damaged)
    • Disposable gloves
    • Antibacterial gel
    • Plastic zipper-seal bags to organize and protect your supplies

What’s the proper way to go about eating and drinking while wearing a mask?

Face masks are new to most of us and it’s a bit of an adjustment, but masks are only protective if the person who is wearing them is cautious. As a general rule of thumb, you should not take your mask on and off while in public if you want to minimize your exposure to potential germs.

Related: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

But what if you want to eat or drink while in flight? Dr. Le said, “Ultimately, there is no foolproof way to drink or eat while wearing a face mask without decreasing your protection. If it’s just a quick drink, you can momentarily remove part of the mask to take your sip, but if you’re eating, you’ll likely need to take it off completely.”

If you do chose to eat or drink while in flight, you should take the following precautions when removing your mask:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer before removing
  • Do not touch the front of the mask, instead, remove the mask by the ear loops, ties, or bands
  • If the mask is disposable, throw it away and replace with a new, clean mask
  • If the mask is machine washable, place it in a sealed plastic bag

Regardless, Dr. Lee says to “take care to not put it on the tabletop or in the seatback pocket so that it does not become contaminated by those surfaces.”

One final word of advice is to hydrate before flying, as it could ultimately help protect you.

“When less hydrated, the cilia in your nose and throat are less effective at capturing and pushing bacteria and viruses out of your respiratory tract, thereby increasing your risk of becoming infected,” Dr. Le said.

SHOULD PPE BE REQUIRED for passengers and airline workers?

With many states still under stay-at-home orders and requiring people to wear face masks while in public,  “it feels contradictory for people to practice these measures and then get on an airplane, where the quarters are close and the air is heavily recirculated, without any safeguards or protective equipment,” Dr. Le said.

The CDC, among other sources,  is now encouraging everyone to cover up while in public, even if it’s not legally required everywhere just yet. In the air, flight attendants are calling for PPE to mandated by the U.S. departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services. So far, JetBlue and Frontier are the only U.S. airlines to require both passengers and workers wear face coverings. Airlines such as United and American are only explicitly requiring that flight attendants cover up, though they have said they will begin offering masks to passengers, so the requirement could change. Other airlines are simply recommending that passengers wear masks.

The TSA recently made changes that include allowing travelers to wear face masks while in line, but did not mandate it.

“It is incumbent on the airlines to provide their employees with personal protective equipment (PPE), including plenty of face masks and gloves so that they can change both out often if necessary, especially during drink and meal service,” said Dr. Le.

Featured photo by AJ_Watt/Getty Images.

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