How to stay safe on planes now that the U.S. has gone maskless

Concerned travellers should continue to wear a quality mask, reduce touch points at the airport, and have a testing and treatment strategy while away from home.

Emma Jones 5 minute read April 21, 2022
Traveling during coronavirus pandemic concept

The CDC still recommends wearing masks in crowded areas — such as airplanes. GETTY

Passengers were in for a bit of a scramble Monday as the U.S. federal government lifted mask mandates on public transportation, including airlines.

The mandate was already previously scheduled to end April 18, however, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had extended the mandate by 15 days due to the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, Florida ruled that the CDC didn’t follow proper procedures to create this new rule and didn’t adequately justify the reason for the extension. Thus, the mask mandate on public transportation ended.

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines have all dropped mask requirements for U.S. domestic flights, according to the New York Times.

Air filtration on planes filter >99% of COVID-19 particles 

So what exactly is the risk of catching COVID-19 on a flight? It’s actually pretty difficult to say.

A review of 20 studies published in the Journal of Travel Medicine looked at the rate of transmission during air flight. They found that tracking these cases and determining exactly where transmission occurred was difficult, as passengers were coming from and moving to all parts of the world.

In fact, flying itself may not be the biggest risk while travelling as most planes have significant filtration systems which are able to filter out viruses and other particles Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University, told Yahoo! News.

According to a report issued by the Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “The on board ventilation system that continuously circulates and refreshes the air supply, filtering out [greater than] >99 per cent of the particles that cause COVID-19, and rapidly dispersing exhaled air with displacement in the downward direction. This ventilation effectively counters the proximity travellers are subject to during flights.”

Still, virus outbreaks on a plane are still thought to be possible. Sitting close to someone with COVID-19, as well as being aboard a longer flight with a case of COVID, increases the risk of contacting an infection. However, there’s not enough evidence to conclude exactly how close is too close.

The air filtration system on a plane is also typically only on while the plane is in flight, meaning all of the action a traveller must get through before takeoff can be high risk for contacting the virus. This includes waiting in lobbies, getting on and off the plane itself and long customs lines.

How to stay safe while travelling

The CDC still recommends wearing masks in crowded areas — such as airplanes — as federal agencies continue to evaluate the risks. Some travellers may also wish to take extra precautions before flying.

Outside of masking, airlines should disinfect high-touch areas on the plane between each flight, keep ventilation systems on whenever passengers are on the plane (including while on the ground) and enforce physical distancing by only allowing a limited amount of people to embark/disembark at a time, according to recommendations released by the APHI.

Travellers should also continue to wear a high-rated mask (i.e.. KN95) and reduce touch points at the airport by checking in at home or on their smartphone. Washing or sanitizing hands often and trying to maintain distances from others in tight places like the security line are also encouraged. Even better, travellers should try to limit time in crowded areas like restrooms, or wait until their seats have been called to approach the gate.

At-risk travellers may also want to put together a testing plan and consider how they might quickly get access to antiviral pills if they do test positive, Gigi Gronvall, an epidemiologist and Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider.

A conversation with your doctor to discuss strategies — and find out if travel is safe for you during the latest COVID wave — could also help alleviate some of the extra stress international travel now brings.

Enforcing mask mandates just got harder for flight attendants

Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions still enforce wearing masks on planes, so flights entering and leaving Canadian airports will need to see masks on all the passengers. However, the change in our neighbour’s mandates may make it more difficult for Canadian flight attendants to enforce mask wearing.

“After two years, our members know the difficulty of enforcing mask mandates all too well, and we believe this development could make that job even harder when American carriers have no mask mandate but Canadian carriers do,” Wesley Lesosky, the airline division president of the union CUPE, wrote in an email to the Toronto Star.

“There’s no question masking on board aircraft significantly improves the health and safety of both the work environment for our members, but also for the passengers on board.”

Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Twitter @jonesyjourn.

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