How to social distance on a plane — is it possible?

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We were ambushed.

An era permeated by surgical masks, latex gloves, hand sanitizer, and ethyl alcohol has clouted us off our feet, and our equilibrium has yet to return. Travel is undoubtedly one of the hardest-hit industries due to the coronavirus, and airlines try their best to acclimate to the continual updates and insights from health and medical professionals.

Among the most controversial (and seemingly impossible) suggestions to remain safe is the practice of social distancing on airplanes. Can it even be done?? We talked to a handful of experts on the subject. And as you may expect, medical professionals state that social distancing on a plane is impossible — unless you’ve got a bit of luck on your side. What they don’t always agree upon is the level of danger to which you subject yourself and others by flying.

Regardless, there’s plenty you can do to minimize your chances of contracting or spreading the coronavirus. And for those cases when you social distancing can’t be properly carried out, there are certainly other steps you can take that make it safe to fly during the coronavirus outbreak.

(Photo by Tverdokhlib/Shutterstock)

Is social distancing on a plane possible?

I recently traveled on a nearly sold-out American Airlines flight. A bit of a weird experience after months of sharing the fuselage with nothing but tumbleweeds. Social distancing was not an option on this flight. Should I have been worried?

Leann Poston, a medical doctor from Invigor Medical, had this to say:

From a medical perspective, I feel like flying is an average-risk activity. Of course, each person needs to weigh the risks and benefits for themselves and they might find the benefits far outweigh the risks. On the other hand, people with medical conditions that put themselves at higher risk from complications of COVID may find the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Since it is impossible to maintain any kind of distance from other people in a plane, social distancing is impossible.

There absolutely are situations that warrant air travel. But if you purchase your ticket, be prepared to compromise your social distancing protocols. Unless you’re on a nearly empty flight, the chances of maintaining a distance of six feet is not going to happen. If you are to happen upon a flight with few passengers, General Practitioner Giuseppe Aragona of Prescription Doctor says there’s little to worry about:

Social distancing can be possible on a plane if there are less passengers. If people have three seats to themselves, and are separated from others, it is possible to get on a plan and be safe. Using the restroom and things like this would not be safe however, so shorter journeys are best made currently, so that you do not need to move from your seat at all…

Points well taken. It’s easy to see why heading to the restroom would be a high-risk activity.

Dr. Nikola Djordjevic is a medical advisor at HealthCareers. He informed me that whether you should feel safe on the plane is a tricky question:

…[T]here are plenty of factors to consider. Overall, I should say the risk goes anywhere from being mild to high, and I would advise avoiding air traveling when it’s possible.

Some airlines are blocking the middle seat, which makes it safer to travel. However, some avoid doing it, and people are practically sitting beside each other, without respecting the social distancing. That’s why my first tip for anyone flying would be to do proper research and fly only with those airlines blocking the middle seat.

A number of U.S. airlines are in fact blocking middle seats. Some are even blocking select aisle seats on their smaller flights (usually regional jets with seats in a 2-2 or 2-1 configuration). But regardless of these measures, you’ll still have passers-by heading to the lavatory, flight attendants cross-checking, and an assortment of other bodies encroaching on your social distancing bubble, 12 feet in diameter, remember.

Dr. Djordjevic gives helpful suggestions to maximize your distance between other passengers. Addressing the fact that airlines have boosted cabin cleaning practices, and claim that breathing in a plane is be completely safe with their special filtering of air with HEPA filters, he explains that you can do your part to protect yourself from catching COVID-19 while flying — namely, selecting your seat:

Window seats have fewer germs than those close to the aisles, and are one way to decrease the risks of becoming ill while traveling. Further, avoiding seats that are close to the toilet can reduce the chances of getting sick, because they don’t have as many people passing by and spreading the germs.

In other words, window seats as close to the front of the plane as possible will give you the smallest chance of passing or receiving. Makes sense!

These airlines block middle seats

In an effort to help travelers with their social distancing efforts, the below airlines have blocked out middle seats on their flights. Again, staying six feet from other passengers is unrealistic. But at the very least, you won’t be sharing an armrest.

[table “677” not found /]

Bottom line

Airlines are doing what they feel is right based on the current climate. Whether that means cramming people aboard an aircraft (the experts say onboard social distancing is impossible, after all), blocking out middle seats to give you a sense of comfort, or providing you the opportunity to rebook for free when the airline reaches a certain capacity, you’ll have to read each carrier’s terms.

In the meantime, the medical industry has given us several actionable tips for our next flight, including strategic seating, boycotting the lavatory, and making the shortest possible journey.

Dr. Poston reminds us of a few simple suggestions in line with the CDC for those engaging in air travel:

[P]lanes do have air circulation and filtration systems to minimize the risk of infection. Everyone should wear a mask to cover their mouth and nose. Wear glasses to cover your eyes. Use hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean. Do not touch your face.

Don’t bank on social distancing on a plane. The other precautions are enough.

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Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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