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This morning I received an email (below) from  Scott’s Cheap Flights, which is my go-to website for airline deals.

Scott Keyes’ site regularly turns up airfares that are 50 percent off the regular price, and sometimes up to 90 percent off  — but they’re often good for just a day or two, so you need to act fast. (Sign up to get email notifications of the daily deals.)

But acting fast to grab great fares (and with airlines anxious to fill seats again, they are plentiful) isn’t easy in the midst of a pandemic — because it’s difficult to know what the situation will be next year, much less a month or two from now.

While I’ve been on the cautious side of the when-is-it-safe-to-fly debate — as a baby boomer, my age puts me in a higher-risk category — I found Scott’s take on the risks of flying now to be both informative and encouraging, while balanced by some common-sense caveats. (Be sure to check out the links for more info.)

Obviously, you may wish to question whether a site devoted to airline deals would be objective on the subject, but I’ve found them always to be straight shooters, whether for information about booking flights during the pandemic or during more normal times in the past.

So here’s the question Scott’s poses: During a pandemic, just how risky is it to get on a plane?  And here are their answers, starting with some “myths” about airline safety:

👃 Myth #1: There’s no fresh air on airplanes.

When you’re in an airplane at 30,000 feet, many people assume there’s no fresh air. Understandable thought, but it’s not true!

Airplanes aren’t hermetically sealed environments. During a flight, fresh air from outside the plane is being continuously circulated into the cabin through complex vents in the engines.

✈️  Myth #2: Cabin air is “stale.”

In addition to bringing in fresh air from the outside, planes have hospital-grade air filters to purify the air onboard.

These High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters cycle the air every few minutes, capturing 99.97% of airborne particles.

Because of these onboard filters, researchers have found that airplane air is as clean or cleaner than the air in offices, schools, and other indoor settings.

🤒  Myth #3: There’s no chance of getting sick on a plane.

Though fresh air and filters help, you’ll still be sharing an indoor space with quite a few people for an extended period of time. If a sick person sitting next to you coughs, fresh air and HEPA filters aren’t great armor.

Planes, like most places, will never be 100% safe.

Because the risk of infection on a plane isn’t zero, precautions are prudent. Bring hand sanitizer (TSA is allowing up to 12oz in your carry-on) and disinfectant wipes for your seat armrests and table. Sure, the airlines are wiping them down already, but what’s the harm in wiping twice?

💺  Myth #4: Planes are superspreaders.

Dr. Joseph Allen, a Harvard professor and leading infectious disease expert who has studied infectious disease and airplanes for years, wrote recently:

“Billions of people travel by plane every year. […] If planes made you sick, we would expect to see millions of people sick every year attributable to flights. We haven’t seen it because it’s just not happening.”

Indeed, millions of people have flown since the coronavirus pandemic began, and there’s only been one documented case where someone transmitted covid-19 to two or more other passengers.

It’s telling that 2/3 of epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times said they’d be comfortable getting on a plane in the next 12 months.

😷  Fact #1: Masks are really important.

Per Dr. Allen, a 2008 study found that wearing masks on an airplane “reduced the incidence of infection another 10-fold.”

Though nowadays almost all airlines require masks to board, some have been lax about enforcement during the actual flight.

Thankfully, that’s starting to change; United and American Airlines have announced new policies threatening to ban travelers who refuse to wear a mask from future flights.

To quote RCMelic: No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no fly.

🙃  Fact #2: Travel should be fun.

Even with airplane myths debunked, many people still aren’t comfortable flying right now, and that’s a decision I respect 100%. Vacations should be fun, not stressful. Paris and Palm Springs aren’t going anywhere.

None of this is to say everyone should hop on a plane tomorrow. It’s a personal decision. My hope is that knowing more about airplane safety will be reassuring as people begin assessing when they’ll feel safe and comfortable traveling again.

My View: 

I think more data is needed about the effects of filling airplanes up to capacity again (those dreaded middle seats!), as American Airlines and other airlines will be doing, before we can declare flying relatively safe.

And even if the actual flight doesn’t pose much danger of infection, you also have to factor in time spent in airports, especially when standing in lines or seated in waiting areas — is everyone wearing masks and practicing social distancing?

And what about crowded shuttles to and from airport parking lots or to and from airport hotels?

There are still plenty of inherent risks in flying just now — but everyone must weigh those risks for themselves.

Readers, I’d love to hear about any recent flying experiences you’ve had and how safe you felt both onboard the plane and in airports. Please leave a comment below or email me at clark@clarknorton.com. Thanks!

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
  • Roughly half the consumer spending money in the U.S.--more than $2 trillion--is in the hands of leading-edge baby boomers and seniors.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) travel more than any other age group.
  • When asked what they would most like to spend their money on, baby boomers answered “travel” more than any other category, including improving their health or finances.

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