We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.

12 July 2021

Covid-19: How to stay safe on a plane and at the airport

Follow our expert tips to minimise your risk of being denied boarding or of contracting COVID-19 while traveling by air
Which? Team

After months of restrictions the virus continues unabated, so packing strangers on to a plane may sound risky. Shared facilities on the ground and in the air mean that the virus could be spread through coughing or sneezing, or through contact with contaminated surfaces.

The government issued strict health and safety guidance, based on advice from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). However, these measures are not being enforced, with airlines free to carry out their own risk assessments.

In a bid to reassure passengers, airlines have introduced safety protocols such as social distancing, reducing the food and drink service, and ensuring face coverings are worn on board. But their effectiveness remains to be seen.

Some airports are encouraging touch-free check in and trialling body temperature cameras, but with travellers teeming through security, food outlets, toilets and departure gates, the onus is on flyers to be vigilant. If you do choose to fly, we reveal below how best to protect yourself from contracting coronavirus.

As well as considering your own safety while travelling by air, you need to check you are complying with rules set by your airline and destination to ensure you won't be denied boarding.

For more unbiased news and travel advice, sign up to W? Travel

Temperature checks

While several airports trialled body temperature cameras to screen people as they moved through the airport, the EASA has warned that there’s little evidence of their effectiveness. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, up to 80% of people who test positive for coronavirus don’t display symptoms. For the 20% that do, it can take between four and seven days to develop a fever after exposure. Therefore, these trials are no longer continuing.

Still, there’s no harm in checking your own temperature just in case you fall into the 20% bracket of those that show symptoms.

Just remember, others may not be showing symptoms, so remain fastidious about washing your hands and following social distancing rules where possible. 

Some airports and airlines are also conducting temperature checks. If you have a high temperature, you may be denied boarding, so make sure you have taken out comprehensive travel insurance to protect against this scenario.

Find out which are the best travel insurance policies.

Keep the experience as touch-free as possible

man holding an ipad

Measures are already in place to make airports as ‘touchless’ as possible, as the virus can live on stainless steel and plastic for up to 72 hours, according to The New England Journal of Medicine.  

Passengers are being asked to self-scan passports and use ‘bag drop’ and eGate facilities to keep contact to a minimum.

Help yourself further by downloading the airline app before you travel as it means you can check in online and download your boarding pass to your phone. 

Also consider downloading newspapers, books and magazines to read rather than buying them in airport shops and bring your own empty refillable water bottle  – you can fill it up once you’re through security. 

GP and travel health writer, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, warns that airport ATMs are likely to be ‘highly contaminated’, so bring enough cash for your journey and use contactless payment where possible.

High-risk contamination zones at the airport

  • ATM machine
  • Passport check-in desk
  • Shop payment terminal
  • Children's play area
  • Staircase rails
  • Security check tray area

Choose an airline whose coronavirus protocols you trust

Seating

Health and safety protocols differ by airline. Delta is leaving the middle seat empty and capping capacity at 75% until 30 March 2021. In contrast, Ryanair won’t automatically seat you with your household, unless you pay for pre-selected seats. This is despite EU COVID-19 guidance calling on airlines to limit passengers’ contact with strangers and modify the seat allocation process accordingly. 

Ryanair has denied any suggestion that it has intentionally split up groups travelling together, stating that its seating policy ‘remains unchanged’ during the pandemic.

If you do select a seat, choose one by the window. They attract less germs than the aisle seat, which people touch as they walk past or when getting in and out of their seat row.

Luggage

Additionally, the government is advising passengers to check as much luggage into the hold as possible, to limit movement up and down the cabin. Ryanair, however, is encouraging customers to bring carry-on bags. 

A spokesperson for Ryanair said hold luggage would ‘significantly increase the risk of COVID-19 ’ as it has to pass through eight different sets of hands, from check-in to the boarding gate. The jury’s out as to which approach is best.

Before you book, check your airline’s website to get the full rundown of their coronavirus safety measures.

Aside from coronavirus protocols, airlines differ in quality - find out which budget carriers were ranked the best and worst overall 

Take your own sanitising products

While Emirates is disinfecting after every flight, Ryanair– whose planes are used much more frequently – are relying on just one clean per day. 

Ryanair says that the chemicals used provide 24 hours of protection. But Greg Towers, a virologist at University College London, says: ‘More cleaning equals less risk. I don’t know what cleaning Ryanair is doing, but I doubt there’s a way of preventing the virus getting on door handles or killing it with some previous cleaning protocol.’

Dr Wilson-Howarth advises carrying alcohol wipes to clean the tray table and high-risk areas (see graphic), including the toilet door handle.

You’re probably better off taking your own hand sanitiser, too, since public ones that aren’t touchless, may have accumulated bacteria on the pump.

Switch on the overhead fan

Airlines’ hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air filtration systems (HEPA) on planes is said to remove 99.9% of impurities, including bacteria and viruses, and renew cabin air every two to three minutes. 

Professor Sally Bloomfield, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, suggests that you help yourself further by switching on the overhead fan when flying as the fan enables you to breathe air directly from above rather than that of the people seated around you.

Travel at quieter times

Flights are normally at their quietest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so airports and planes may be less packed. 

You could also travel very early in the morning or late at night when flights are often not so full so it’s easier to practice social distancing.

Wear a face mask correctly – and bring spares

woman wearing face mask on a plane

Despite the HEPA filtration systems on planes, they can’t stop the person in the next seat from coughing or sneezing on you - which is why face coverings must be worn. Those with certain medical conditions are exempt as well as children (the cut-off age varies by airline).

When you bring your own covering, bear in mind that  European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control advises that medical masks should be worn when a minimum distance of 1.5 metres from others can’t be guaranteed.  Medical masks comply with European Standard requirements, whereas self-made cloth masks are not standardised.

Bring enough face coverings for your entire journey. According to WHO, you should not use the mask when it becomes damp, nor should you reuse it. Discard of it in a bin immediately when you remove it to eat or drink and replace with a fresh one afterwards. Additionally, make sure they cover the face from the bridge of the nose to the chin. An ill-fitting mask can lead you to touch your face more than usual, which could actually increase your risk of transmission. 

Check mask requirements at your destination

As well as packing enough face masks to enable you to put on a fresh one every four hours, you need to check whether the country you're flying to requires a certain type of mask for entry. We've heard reports of passengers being denied boarding for not having the correct face mask. Travelers entering Italy, for example, are required to wear a surgical or FFP2 mask.

Unfortunately, checking mask requirements is currently easier said than done, because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) isn't currently listing this information online. If in doubt, check with your airline before flying and pack several different types of mask, including a surgical or FFP2 mask, so that you've covered all the bases.

High-risk contamination zones on the plane

  • Tray table
  • Toilet door handle
  • Seatbelt
  • Seat pocket
  • Seat head rest