Flying during coronavirus: What to expect and how to stay safe

Here's what airlines are doing to help keep travelers safe.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read

COVID-19 has changed virtually everything -- especially air travel.

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Flying and spending time in airports is one of the riskiest things you can do during the COVID-19 pandemic. And like virtually every other aspect of life, the pandemic has changed travel as we know it -- at least while we wait for a vaccine

But if you can't wait until a vaccine arrives to travel by air, you should understand the risks and know that there are measures you can take to stay safe. Flying is risky for several reasons, but the main concern is being in close proximity to other people from all over the country or the world. 

Infectious disease expert and MD Dr. Sandra Kesh told CNET that other factors like stagnant air on a plane are also a concern. "When you're sitting on a plane waiting for it to take off, there is no air movement. If you turn on the fan above your head, that's the only air moving. It's a really terrific environment for one person to potentially infect the whole plane," Dr. Kesh says.

One of the best ways to protect yourself (besides wearing a mask) is social distancing. And when it comes to flying, the reality is that it's almost impossible to truly socially distance on a plane. Even if the flight you are on is not completely booked, the chances that you will encounter someone -- either a fellow passenger or flight attendants -- within six feet of you is very high. You will likely also encounter people within six feet while getting through airport security and boarding a plane.

Keep reading to learn more about what airlines are changing to help keep travelers safe and what you can do if you have to fly. 


Airlines are increasing sanitation protocol, blocking seats and more to help keep passengers safe. 

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How airlines are responding to COVID-19 

Travel restrictions, shelter-in-place orders and general health concerns have significantly impacted air travel. Getting on a plane today won't look the same as it did at the beginning of 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the US.

Fewer flights

Most airlines are operating on a limited number of flights throughout the rest of the summer -- but some are gradually increasing service as more of the country opens up. American Airlines is operating at 50% of its normal schedule for domestic flights in July, and most other airlines are operating flights at 50% or less compared to a normal summer schedule.

Limited cabin capacity 

Since one of the best ways to stay safe on a plane is to remain 6 feet apart from those around you, it makes sense that airlines would limit the amount of people allowed on board. Unfortunately, you won't be able to stay 6 feet apart from all people for most airlines, so you will need to check capacity when you book and try to fly at off-peak times to make sure you can have space around you.

Delta Airlines is limiting capacity to 60% in the main cabin and 50% in first class. They are also blocking off select window and aisle seats, and all middle seats to allow for better social distancing. The airline says it plans to keep these safety measures in place until September 30. 

Other major airlines that are limiting capacity by blocking off seats are Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest

Health agreements and health checks

Airline industry trade organization Airlines for America (major airlines like JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, and United are all members) announced support for TSA beginning temperature checks for passengers. Although this measure is not in place yet, it's likely that the TSA could add temperature checks as the United States continues to face a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. Airlines for America also released a statement saying member airlines would allow refunds for passengers' tickets if they are denied entry onto a plane if they have an elevated body temperature at a checkpoint. 

Some airlines, like United Airlines, are requiring passengers to answer questions about their health history and screen for any symptoms before they can check into a flight.

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Increased sanitation

Airlines have increased sanitation and cleaning protocols with deeper and more frequent cleanings. Major airlines affiliated with Airlines for America said they are meeting or exceeding CDC guidelines for cleaning and sanitation. Many planes are utilizing High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters to ensure the air flow is filtered and circulated as much as possible. Still, you should remain vigilant about hand hygiene on board, and bring your own disinfectant wipes so you can wipe down your seat and tray when you board. 


Many major airlines are requiring that all passengers, staff and crew wear face masks while on board.

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Mask policies on planes

One of the best ways to keep yourself and others protected while flying is by wearing a face mask at all times -- from the time you set foot into the airport until you make it back inside your home or wherever your final destination is. US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow recently issued a statement urging travelers to wear masks to ensure everyone can have a healthy travel experience. 

"A wealth of information from medical experts points to the value of mask wearing as a key tool in preventing the spread of infection. Health and safety are paramount to restarting travel and putting Americans back to work, and our industry's recovery is contingent on businesses and travelers alike doing their part to ensure a healthy and safe travel experience for all along the journey," Dow said in the statement. 

Many airlines are now mandating that all crew and staff on board wear masks, as well as all passengers on board. Airlines also recently tightened this policy, saying passengers who refuse to wear masks on a plane can be banned from future air travel with airlines. 

Watch this: MTA CEO on why New York subways are safe to get back on
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.