Flying during COVID-19 up in the air as the holiday season beckons

For shorter flights, COVID-19 transmission rates are between 2 and 4%.
For shorter flights, COVID-19 transmission rates are between 2 and 4%. Photo credit Getty Images

As winter approaches and the holiday season arrives, many are once again weighing the risks and benefits of flying during the pandemic, the rules of which still feel tenuous after all these months.

With Southwest Airlines' dealing with massive delays and canceled flights over the past weekend, it seems as if more than flights are a roll of the dice these days.

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But the likelihood of an in-flight COVID-19 transmission is relatively low, although "not completely zero," said Dr. Mark Gendreau, Chief Medical Officer at Beverly Hospital and an expert in aviation medicine with KCBS Radio’s Dan Mitchinson on KCBS Radio's "Ask an Expert."

Especially for shorter flights, of two hours or less, he said. For those, transmission rates are between 2 to 4%. "That's if you’re wearing a mask," he said. If not wearing a mask, that likelihood gets doubled.

Any longer flight, 12 hours or more, the risk can range anywhere from 11% to 90%, if not wearing a mask.

Regardless, "masks make a huge difference," said Gendreau.

While these rates are consistent for any confined space, an aircraft, a bus, a train, or even a building, there are a variety of contributing factors.

It depends on proximity, length of proximity, each person’s infectiousness, said Gendreau, as well as your own overall vaccination status, health and immunity.

Those traveling frequently for business or personal matters should consider getting a booster shot, he said.

Anyone over the age of 65 should still have enough immunity to be able to travel for the holidays this year, as long as they are operating under proper masking and other COVID-19 procedures.

One tip is to turn on and adjust the airflow nozzle above your seat over your abdomen and lap. In that position, "that will take any droplets that are coming your way and push them down near the bottom of the floor where the cabin air circulation pattern is bringing that airflow to exit," he said.

Try to minimize getting up and moving around during the flight as well, particularly when deplaning. The highest risk of transmission is when people are getting off the plane at the end of the flight, said Gendreau.