Are Airplanes Actually the Safest Place to Be During the Coronavirus?

They can go from safest to most dangerous real quick — depending on the passengers onboard

Just over a week ago, I reported that the coronavirus was torpedoing travel costs, and that it was a good time to go on holiday — that is, if you were willing to risk getting stuck somewhere for an extended period of time and just generally contribute to the spread of this pandemic.

Since then, despite an increase in travel bans to certain places, airports and airlines have made a large effort to reduce the potential for transmission, cleaning more frequently and paying special attention to disinfecting frequently touched areas, installing heaps of hand sanitizer dispensers, reminding passengers that they can check in from their phones to avoid human-to-human or human-to-machine-to-human contact and asking flight attendants to wear gloves. They clearly want people to keep buying tickets.

And if all of this is working appropriately, then airports and airplanes in particular are perhaps some of the cleanest, safest places to be right about now, as the coronavirus continues to spread. Cleaning your hands and your surroundings are, after all, two important steps that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend taking in order to stay healthy through the coronavirus outbreak.

“The airplane itself should be fine,” confirms primary care physician Marc Leavey when I ask him about the safety of jumping on one (not out of one) during the current coronavirus outbreak. “The air is microfiltered for pathogens and particulates and should be fairly clean. The plane is also apparently wiped down and cleaned to eliminate, as best as possible, any residual disease vectors.” As is the case in many End Times scenarios, then, being in an airplane with unlimited fuel, flying above the world and downing small bottles of liquor, would be a decent way to wait out the coronavirus.

But of course, as Leavey warns, “The people on the plane with you are another matter. Presuming that no one on the plane is ill — and they’re supposed to be screening for fevers — there shouldn’t be a problem. But if there’s someone on the flight who has a communicable disease, whether it be a common cold, influenza, coronavirus, tuberculosis or worse, those in the proximity of the ill individual may be at risk, should the affected person cough, sneeze or otherwise expectorate droplets from their respiratory tract. Similarly, if an ill person were to expel infected droplets on a surface, such as a handrail, shelf or bathroom facility, and another person touched the area while still wet, transmission of disease would be possible.”

And whether you have the coronavirus or not, by traveling, you could be contributing to the spread. “One major point about traveling on airplanes is that it prevents us from flattening the curve,” immunologist Kathleen Dass warns. “If you travel, you’re exposing yourself to receiving the virus and potentially many others. By not traveling, you’re controlling the speed at which the virus travels, and thus, the increase in the number of people affected in a short amount of time. By not flying, this helps lower the speed of the coronavirus pandemic, while giving the health system time to strengthen its response.” Dass also points me toward a new study that found that the coronavirus can “stay in the air for three hours and on plastic or steel for days.”

In other words, airlines can do their best to keep things as clean as possible, but even just one person traveling with the coronavirus can blow up the whole place with germs that put virtually everyone at risk — and then you might as well just be stuck in a large, metal coronavirus incubator. “The bottom line would be to act as you’re acting now, on the ground: Be aware of those around you and their behavior, and guard yourself from exposure whenever you can,” Leavey suggests. “Wash your hands with soap and water, or a sanitizer if soap and water isn’t available, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, or other sensitive areas of your body, if your hands aren’t clean.”

In the end, then, planes are pretty damn safe, but getting on one usually exposes you to the general public, which is the real culprit when it comes to the coronavirus. If you have a private jet and unlimited fuel, on the other hand…