No, air travel is not as safe as you might have heard
“Safety From The Ground Up.” This is what JetBlue is promising to ensure for its customers traveling over the holidays. In support of this promise, the company makes liberal use of a study by Harvard researchers, which it says shows that the “risk of contracting COVID-19 while taking a flight is very low.” This past week, I took a JetBlue flight in the aftermath of a family emergency. The experience raised significant questions about airlines’ claims that air travel is “safe.”
From the minute I arrived at the airport, I saw many travelers wearing masks without covering their noses, taking masks off to eat in crowded settings, and unmasking while talking on their phones. Despite a public masking requirement in the state, which studies show significantly reduces COVID-19 transmission, there were few verbal reminders about masking and no enforcement. And, despite CDC reports and guidance stressing the effectiveness of social distancing, people waiting to board planes were seated in close proximity and many in lines were standing within six feet of each other.
Most shockingly, on a short, roughly two-hour flight, JetBlue made the incredible decision to serve food and drink. The airline, which recently retreated from limiting the number of filled seats, actively encouraged closely-seated individuals to remove their masks at the same time to dine. In light of widespread, recent limitations on indoor dining—which studies show is a significant contributor to community spread—the flight was a notable exception, with almost none of the additional protections like social distancing which restaurants across the country have adopted.
In the midst of the most significant nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the failure of airlines and airports to implement additional low-burden precautions undermines the nation’s entire public health strategy and is contrary to expert recommendations.
The Harvard study cited across the airline industry recommends a set of ideal safety conditions that are relatively far afield from reality. For example, the study recommends universal masking throughout the journey, which, in this case, did not occur. It also recommends distancing protocols during both boarding and deplaning, which appear to be inconsistently followed and underenforced.
Importantly, on the one flight I took that did remind passengers to maintain social distancing during boarding, and to deplane row by row, almost all travelers followed the recommendation. What this suggests is that, rather than a series of increasingly restrictive air travel requirements, more widespread encouragement of voluntary behaviors through a series of behavioral nudges might be effective in rapidly making air travel safer.
Proper mask use and social distancing should be more actively encouraged by airport staff. Individuals waiting in lines for food and at stores should be politely asked to stay six feet apart, and additional signage and floor markings should be posted. To encourage compliance, reminders should be non-confrontational and reflect an overall culture of community safety rather than individual shame. Responsible travelers can play a significant role in setting the standard. Rather than clustering near gates to wait, people can spread to other areas until boarding time. Those needing to unmask or eat should do so in less crowded areas, if at all possible.
The same gentle, frequent reminders should be used when boarding and deplaning, ideally row-by-row. Airlines could also consider algorithms that allocate filled seats at the time of boarding, in the case of under-filled flights. Older passengers and those with underlying health conditions could then have the opportunity to request seats in less-crowded areas of the plane.
Most importantly, all airlines should significantly limit the provision food and drink during flights. Although a number of airlines do this, as United does for flights under 2 hours and 20 minutes, JetBlue does not. Even on longer flights, meals could be provided more safely. For example, meals could be staggered such that a limited number of individuals in each row are unmasking at any given time, preferably with as much distance between them as possible.
A more restrictive option that airlines could consider is requiring or encouraging passengers to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding. Incentives could be particularly useful here; for example, airlines could provide additional miles or lower-priced tickets for passengers who received tests, and those testing positive could receive refunds. Such incentives could also be targeted at passengers from high-risk locations.
Given variable enforcement of and compliance with safety measures, and the significant number of people traveling for the holidays, air travel is unlikely to be as “safe” as the studies cited by airlines. While many companies have adopted some of the approaches suggested above, there is much low-hanging fruit available to further decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Airlines don’t necessarily have to choose more restrictive measures; low-burden behavioral nudges would go a long way towards decreasing risks.
Many travelers are flying because they care deeply about their family members. Companies like JetBlue can show that they care too, by actively encouraging a culture of safety rather than misleading travelers with studies of optimal conditions. A hard look at the reality of Thanksgiving travel is needed before the next surge of holiday flights in December.
Blake Shultz lives in New Haven.
CTViewpoints welcomes rebuttal or opposing views to this and all its commentaries. Read our guidelines and submit your commentary here.