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Why Traveling by Plane Is Risky During the Holidays

This information was accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since the original publication date.


Traveling during widespread COVID-19 transmission in the U.S. increases your chance of getting and spreading the virus. There are many risks involved, including the possibility of infecting those you are visiting or getting infected by those who are visiting you. The best way you can protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is by staying home.

Airplanes are a moderate risk

Andy Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, classifies flying as a moderate risk. COVID-19 transmission has happened on planes, according to Pavia, but mostly on long-haul flights where travelers weren't wearing masks consistently. Transmission is more uncommon on medium-haul flights where middle rows are empty and everyone wears a mask consistently. Pavia also points to airplanes as having good air exchanges and being equipped with air filters. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most viruses and germs do not spread easily because of air circulation on airplanes.

Air travel is considered high-risk

Getting to your seat on your flight is what makes flying most risky. "Think about the process of lining up to get on board, deplaning, the crowds at TSA checkpoint, and taking public transportation," Pavia says. "Airline travel may not be totally risk-free, but the airplane itself may be the least risky part about travel." In these situations when physical distancing is not possible, the CDC recommends everyone to wear a face mask.

There's no guarantee

While many people are getting tested for COVID-19 before traveling, there is no guarantee that it's safe to gather with family and friends. Although it provides some protection, Pavia says a person can still incubate the virus, get exposed a day earlier, or test positive in the days to come. "The best way to use testing is to get tested and then have a period where there is no risk of contacts," Pavia says. "That period should be at least seven days if you want it to work."

Gathering with family or friends requires all to be compliant with coronavirus safety guidelines. "People are under the perception that the houses around them, the people across the street, and their cousins don't count for wearing a mask," says Emily Spivak, MD, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. "People seems to forget to wear a mask at those smaller social gatherings, which is where COVID-19 transmission is happening." The best safety advice is to quarantine for the recommended 14 days and to keep away from other people outside your household during that time.