How to fly safely in an age of coronavirus

International travelers arrive at the Atlanta airport’s Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

When Vicki Hertzberg travels internationally, she walks onto the plane with a plan. The nursing school professor wants to sit in a window seat and then not budge for the rest of her flight.

It's a plan she made a couple of years ago, after she and another professor analyzed which seats and what habits were least likely to expose airline passengers to infectious diseases. And it could come in handy with the coronavirus scare. 

As officials around the world attempt to limit the spread of the virus, travel advisories have been issued and government restrictions put in place. Americans have been advised not to travel to China and parts of Italy and Korea.

» THE LATEST: Complete coverage of coronavirus in Georgia

The public is growing increasingly wary — and increasingly confused.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes person-to-person contact — within six feet — is the main way the disease is spread. Indications are that the virus is passed through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes and the droplets either land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or are inhaled into lungs.

So, what does that mean for aircraft tray tables and armrests?

According to the CDC, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

The CDC also says “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes” because of the circulation and filtering of air. However, travelers should still try to avoid contact with sick people and wash their hands often.

To battle germs, Hertzberg said she keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer that she “will use religiously” on flights.

Coronavirus: the CDC’s advice on travel

Q: What is the risk of getting COVID-19 on an airplane?

A: Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes. Although the risk of infection on an airplane is low, travelers should try to avoid contact with sick passengers and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contain 60%-95% alcohol.

Q: What happens if there is a sick passenger on a flight?

A: Under current federal regulations, pilots must report to the CDC all illnesses and deaths before arriving to the United States. If a sick traveler is considered to be a public health risk, the CDC works with local and state health departments and international public health agencies to contact passengers and crew exposed to that sick traveler. Be sure to give the airline your current contact information when booking your ticket.

Q: Are facemasks or other protective equipment recommended during travel?

A: No, the CDC does not recommend travelers wear facemasks to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

During CNN’s town hall on the coronavirus, chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta said, when flying, he tries to wipe everything down with disinfectant.

“Tray tables, incidentally, on airplanes are one of the dirtiest places on the plane,” he said.

Hertzberg said her research found that passengers are most at risk of being infected by those within two seats of them on either side, or in front or behind.

The risks are probably much smaller from “that guy five rows behind you that is coughing up a lung,” she said.

She picks a window seat because that limits her exposure to one side. Then she stays put to limit additional exposures to other people in the plane.

She said she also avoids using the overhead vent, “because if somebody is coughing or sneezing, that air stream that is shooting down from the vent above me is going to trap those large droplets and then spew them in my face.”

International travelers arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

She said she also drinks water handed out by flight attendants and keeps her vaccinations up to date.

She said her habits haven’t changed since the new coronavirus became an issue.

“There is not a whole lot more I can do differently, other than buying N-95 masks,” she said, which the CDC doesn’t recommend for the general public.

Hertzberg’s study was funded through a partnership with aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which she said has HEPA filters installed in ventilation systems that mix 50% fresh air with plane recycled air. “It is being refreshed more often than standard modern office buildings,” she said.

Delta Air Lines says its international wide-body planes and many of its other aircraft have air circulation systems that blend outside air, sterilized with a high-temperature compressor and ozone purifier, with cabin air that is recirculated through a HEPA filter. The airline said the industrial-grade HEPA air filters “extract more than 99.999% of even the tiniest viruses,” including coronaviruses, which are 0.08 to 0.16 micrometers in size.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Atlanta-based Delta, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has begun disinfecting planes arriving from Asia and Italy using a fogging technique. The company said it is working to expand fogging to more trans-Atlantic flights arriving in the United States from markets with reported cases of coronavirus.

It is also adding sanitization procedures to clean catering equipment on flights arriving from Asia. All unused supplies are being discarded. Linen and headphones are being washed and disinfected separately from linens and headphones from other flights. And galley equipment from Asian flights is being separated for sanitizing and washing.

Hartsfield-Jackson said it is cleaning public areas more often and coordinating with public health officials, while Delta is disinfecting airport kiosks and cleaning gate areas more frequently. The airport does not provide masks to passengers, but it is adding 400 hand sanitizer units throughout the airport.

University of Utah professor Rachel Jones isn’t that concerned about dirty surfaces when it comes to certain viruses. “It is really hard to get a virus into your lower lungs from your hands,” she said.

Jones, who has studied the transmission of germs on planes and in other areas, hasn’t changed her own routine on flights.

“I don’t clean anything. I’ve never attempted to wear a respirator” on a commercial flight, said Jones.

She sets air vents with only her comfort in mind. “I think if I die unexpectedly, it will be getting hit by a car,” she said.

If, in the future, there are a lot of cases of COVID-19 in an area she travels to, she would curtail travel, she said.

But, so far, she doesn’t feel the need to. She said she believes her risks from the new coronavirus disease are low. There have been relatively few confirmed cases in the United States to this point. And she said she is healthy — experts suggest that people with underlying conditions may be most at risk for developing severe symptoms if they are exposed to COVID-19.

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