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Flying during the pandemic? Don’t forget about the risks at the airport.

Health experts say travelers should follow the same public-health precautions in airports as they do everywhere else — but that can be tricky.


A passenger arrives at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Feb. 5. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The risk of catching the coronavirus on an airplane, and ways to reduce that risk, have been well documented since SARS-CoV-2 started spreading across the world a year ago. But airports come with their own potential dangers that people should consider as they decide whether to fly — or prepare to take a flight because they have to.

“The airports are having to deal with huge volumes of people coming and going all the time,” said Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at International SOS. “It’s a herculean task.”

Of course, public health authorities and experts still say everyone should avoid travel and stay home. But with more than 1 million passengers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on both Feb. 11 and 12, it is clear that airports won’t always be crowd-free.

“We know there is essential travel and obviously a lot of people, when they’re faced with that choice, are terrified to go into airports; there’s a lot of fear about risks in that situation,” said Michael Ben-Aderet, associate director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “

A study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said the International Civil Aviation Organization reported no recorded outbreaks among passengers at airports as of December 2020.. But, the study points out, “assessing overall transmission rates in airport environments is notoriously difficult.”

Infectious-disease specialists said there are scenarios, some more avoidable than others, throughout the airport journey that put travelers in a vulnerable situation. And there are steps travelers can take to protect themselves along the way.

Above all, experts said, travelers should follow the same recommendations that public health officials have been giving for many months: wear a high-quality mask properly, which is federally mandated at airports; keep a safe distance of at least six feet from other people; and practice good hand hygiene. Bringing a spare mask is also smart.

Here are other precautions to keep in mind through every step of the airport experience.

Check-in and luggage drop

Try to make this as contact-free as possible, Quigley said. Check in online, and use your phone for a boarding pass. If you must physically check in, do it at a kiosk. Experts recommend carrying bags on rather than checking them to be as safe as possible; if you must check a bag, look for contactless options. Quigley said he’s been able to print out a tag for his bag at a kiosk and then walk it to a drop-off point. “No person-to-person interaction,” he said.

TSA checkpoint

Travelers are supposed to avoid crowded areas and proximity to others, but they have no choice about going through security at the airport. TSA said passengers should expect social distancing measures in line, acrylic shields and ID verification without physical contact. But they should also expect to have to “momentarily” remove their masks to show their identity.

Experts say travelers should be alert: They should avoid those wearing a poor-quality mask or wearing a mask improperly. And they shouldn’t be shy about distancing.

“I think it’s ok to ask others, if you feel like they’re in your six-foot space, to ask them to please respect that space because that benefits everybody,” Ben-Aderet said. He pointed out that six feet is a guideline, but “more distance is better.”

Restroom

Ideally, stalls and sinks would be taped off to prevent people from being too close to each other, but Quigley acknowledged that might not be practical for facilities that handle large volumes of people.

“The key is have your mask on; get in, get out; and try to avoid people who may be sick around you,” he said.

While hand-washing after using a restroom has always been important, it’s even more so during a pandemic since there are so many surfaces that large numbers of other people have touched.

Restaurants, bars and food courts

Eat and drink before going to the airport, said Thomas Russo, the infectious-disease chief at the University at Buffalo.

“The risk is whenever your mask is down,” he said. “You do want to avoid the temptation of sitting there and having the preflight drink or meal. I do not recommend that at all.”

For those who must eat something, Russo recommended finding a grab-and-go item — and then going as far as possible from other people to eat it. He recommended “max separation” and not just six feet of distance.

“If you have to eat and drop your mask, try to find a place where you have to be as distanced from people as possible,” he said.

Quigley also said that regardless of location, travelers should wipe down any surfaces they’re touching and use hand sanitizer.

Shops

Those who want to grab a bestseller, neck pillow or snack pack (to consume far from anyone else) should proceed with caution.

“Because everyone should have their masks up and as long as it’s not overcrowded, that’s sort of like going to the grocery store,” Russo said. “That’s in the low-risk category.”

If, on the other, hand, the shop is crowded and there’s no way to keep at least six feet of distance from everyone else, stay out, Ben-Aderet said.

Gate

After making it through security, the restroom, the shops and the restaurants, the gate is the final hurdle before getting on a plane. And it can be a doozy: a lot of waiting around followed by the rush to line up as boarding starts.

Quigley said he has seen signage that restricted seats to make sure people stayed safely distanced. As a result, passengers from one flight ended up in several different seating areas — a fine solution because airlines have reduced their flights.

Once it’s time to board, Russo said it is best to avoid any stampede.

“This is the moment where [you should] let the crowd go first. Let everybody get on there and wait,” he said. “Even though masks significantly mitigate risk, they’re imperfect. … Avoid any situation where you’re in close quarters with people.”

That applies to the jet bridge, too, Quigley said. “All it takes is one inhalation of somebody else’s breath or cough or sneeze who’s infected.”

Baggage claim

Russo said carrying bags on a plane is the safest bet to avoid crowds at the carousel after landing. But those who must check a bag should be patient and vigilant at the end of their journey.

“Wait for people to get their bags and clear out; maintain your distance,” he said. “Maybe build some extra time into your trip so you’re not in there fighting for your bag.”

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