Traveling by airplane during the COVID-19 pandemic carries a unique set of risks and challenges, and the situation is constantly changing. While face masks, vaccines, and testing make travel as safe as possible, they do not fully eliminate the risk of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The actual risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — depends on various factors. These include a person’s vaccination status, previous infection status, the airline’s precautions, and more.

Most data shows that COVID-19 transmission rates on flights are relatively low. According to guidelines, people are most likely to acquire the virus if they are within two rows or 2 meters of a person who has COVID-19.

Read more to learn about safety precautions to take before, during, and after air travel.

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

A person walking through a COVID-19 testing center in an airport.Share on Pinterest
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The main risk of air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic is sitting or standing close to other people for potentially long periods of time. Risk is particularly high while waiting to board the plane, leaving the plane, and waiting at baggage claim.

However, some aspects of air travel may reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. These include:

Additionally, people can take individual precautions to mitigate risk. These include getting vaccinated and wearing a face mask.

However, in the close quarters of an airplane — and potentially crowded airports — it is impossible to eliminate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has adopted several policies to reduce transmission risks. These include:

  • wearing face masks, even in states and cities that do not require them
  • allowing passengers to take one 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer on board
  • requiring TSA agents to replace their gloves each time they pat down a passenger
  • creating barriers and reminders of physical distancing

Before flying, a person can research the airline and country’s travel regulations. If they have questions or concerns, they can contact the airline for assistance. Most airlines list detailed information and rules on their websites.

Flying when sick — even if the illness is minor — can potentially spread COVID-19. People who have any symptoms should contact the airline about rescheduling their flight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend delaying travel until a person is fully up to date with their vaccines. Additionally, people boarding an international flight to the United States must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof that they have recovered from COVID-19. Many other countries have similar regulations.

Various airlines may also require passengers to complete a pre-travel checklist. This can include submitting proof of a negative COVID-19 test, performing a temperature check, and more.

The TSA and individual airlines require mask-wearing both in airports and on planes. While face mask mandates are ending, airports and airlines seem to be continuing to require their use.

When traveling, it may also be useful to bring multiple face masks. People can replace them periodically throughout a long travel day, which can make their experience more comfortable.

A person can improve their own safety by observing TSA reminders about physical distancing. They can sit with their travel companions, keep a safe distance from others, and practice frequent handwashing.

Several strategies after travel may help minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Some regions require a quarantine period after travel. For example, as of March 2022, Hawaii requires people who are not fully vaccinated or who do not provide proof of a negative test to quarantine for 5 days.

A person can help protect themselves and others by taking additional precautions, such as:

  • avoiding people who are high risk of developing serious illness and unvaccinated individuals for at least 5 days after flying
  • getting tested for COVID-19 or self-isolating if a person develops symptoms
  • consider testing for COVID-19 about 5 days after a flight

According to the CDC, a person should avoid travel if:

  • they have symptoms of COVID-19
  • they have had or have had a positive COVID-19 test in the last 10 days
  • they had close contact with a person with COVID-19
  • they are unvaccinated

The virus spreads easily in close quarters. A person is more likely to contract the virus when they are close enough to a person to inhale aerosols containing viral particles. This can happen on airplanes when people sit close to one another, in busy airport lines, and in close airport seating.

However, airplanes and airports have not proven to be locations of “superspreader” events. This may partly be due to the many precautions TSA and airlines are taking.

Even early in the pandemic, COVID-19 transmission on flights was relatively low.

For example, a March 19, 2020 flight included 241 passengers. Of those, 18 were primary cases, and 11 were secondary cases. It is likely that most of the secondary infections spread on the flight.

It is important to note that no public activity is fully safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the more layers of protection a person adds to their COVID-19 prevention strategy, the lower their chances of contracting the virus.

Some important protection strategies include:

  • getting vaccinated and getting a booster shot when eligible
  • wearing a high quality N95 or KN95 mask over the mouth and nose
  • avoiding crowded places before and after flying
  • avoiding traveling if a person has any symptoms

Flying during the COVID-19 can be overwhelming, but taking certain precautions can make the experience safer and more enjoyable.

Vaccinations, masks, distancing, and testing can minimize the risks of spreading the virus. People with medical conditions should consider consulting a doctor before flying to assess their risk and weigh the benefits and risks of taking a flight.