Is it safe to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, social distancing has been key to preventing infection and staying healthy. Avoiding air travel has been an important part of that distancing.

But sometimes flying is necessary. If you need to fly, take comfort in some recent research on in-flight infection risks. And plan a few precautions to help protect yourself and others.

Reassuring research

Although the COVID-19 virus is too new to have been studied extensively yet, research indicates that the risk of infection in flight may not be higher than it is elsewhere.

A 2018 study found that there's little risk of catching a virus on a plane unless you're within 3 feet of an infected person. That's equivalent to 1 row in front or back, or within 2 seats to either side.

And that study, conducted over 10 almost-full transcontinental flights, was done without anyone wearing a face mask.

Face masks provide an extra layer of protection against airborne virus transmission. They are now in common use throughout the world, both on airplanes and in other public places, to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Additionally, the air circulation system on airplanes may help. Recirculated air passes through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which are also used in hospitals. And the regular churn of air prevents infection-spreading droplets from lingering for long.

Boosting your safety on a flight

Mayo Clinic experts say that when a flight can't be avoided, air travelers should still take precautions to lower their risk of infection.

  • Wear a mask and keep social distance. Wearing masks and keeping a safe social distance (6 feet if possible) is important, especially while waiting in security lines and during the flight.
  • Don't travel if you feel ill. Postpone travel if you feel sick, have a fever, or are having signs and symptoms of a cold, like coughing and sneezing.
  • Wash your hands. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds before and after going through security and before and after boarding your flight. If you can't find a sink, seek out hand sanitizer.
  1. News and our views: Flyers can breathe easier about infection risk. Mayo Clinic Health Letter. Mayo Clinic. November 2020.