What To Know If You’re Flying During The Coronavirus Outbreak, According To Doctors

This post is updated regularly to reflect the latest news and science around coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 disease a pandemic on March 11, you might question whether flying during the coronavirus outbreak is safe. As the infection rate rises, hundreds of thousands of people are canceling or rebooking their flights for a later date — but that doesn’t mean you should rush to cancel yours just yet. If you do choose to fly during the coronavirus outbreak, doctors agree on a number of strategies for keeping yourself healthy.

How Is Coronavirus Affecting Spring & Summer Flights?

American Airlines: In a March 12 press release, American Airlines announced it would be making some changes to spring and summer travel schedules in response to decreased consumer demand. For one, international capacity for the summer season will be reduced by 34%, while trans-Atlantic capacity in April will be cut down by 50%. Additionally, American Airlines flights between DFW, LAX, JFK, MIA and various airports in South America will be suspended until May, June, or even October. Similarly, flights between CLT, DFW, JFK, MIA, ORD, PHL, RDU, and a handful of European airports will be suspended until May or June.

You can find more details at American Airlines’ newsroom.

Delta: On March 13, Delta confirmed that it would be decreasing its domestic schedule by 10-15% in the coming months. It will also reduce its Latin America schedule by 5%, and will fly only one daily roundtrip from JFK-Mexico City, and two daily trips from LAX-Mexico City from May 2-August 16. Additionally, Delta has suspended ATL-Buenos Aires flights from March 17-April 15, and has reduced service ATL-San Salvador flights to twice a week from March 19-April 1.

You can find more details at Delta’s newsroom.

United: In a press release on March 13, United Airlines said it would "continue to fly our regular schedule from Europe to the U.S. through March 20." After that date, the airline will fly daily to airports in Zurich, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, Manchester and Edinburgh. Meanwhile, it will "maintain multiple flights" to Frankfurt and Munich, and will "operate 18 daily flights to and from London, three to Dublin, and four flights a week to Lisbon, all while continuing to monitor demand."

You can find more details on United’s site.

Furthermore, on March 13, the U.S. implemented travel restrictions for non-U.S. citizens traveling from 26 European countries that have been affected by the coronavirus:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

If U.S. citizens return to the states from any of those countries in the month following March 13, they will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

Will I Get A Refund If I Cancel My Flight Due To Coronavirus?

Lots of airlines are temporarily changing their rebooking and cancellation rules because of the coronavirus and recent travel restrictions. Here’s a quick breakdown of refund & exchange policies for major U.S. airlines:

Delta: change fees waived for all tickets purchased between March 1 and March 31, for impacted travel dates up to Feb. 25, 2021; no change fees for customers who were scheduled to travel between March 1-April 30. As of March 13, Delta has requested those who don’t have to travel within the next 72 hours refrain from calling for the immediate future, due to the "unprecedented situation."

Visit Delta’s website for more information.

United Airlines: change fees waived for tickets issued on or before March 2, for travel dates between March 9-April 30; change fees waived for customers who book travel between March 3-31; specific travel waivers for flights to areas in China, Hong Kong, Italy, and South Korea.

Visit United Airlines’ website for more information.

Southwest: no change fees for customers to change their flight; all you have to do is cancel your flight within 10 minutes of departure, and use those funds for future travel within a year from the original purchase date.

Visit Southwest’s website for more information.

JetBlue: change/cancellation fees waived for customers traveling from March 10-April 30; customers can rebook travel flights through to Oct. 24, 2020; travel has to have been booked on or before March 10; for cancellations, funds can be issued as travel credit, to be used within one year of date of issuance. As of March 13, JetBlue has requested customers refrain from calling customer service unless their flight is less than 72 hours away; you can also change your reservation online.

Visit JetBlue’s website for more information.

American Airlines: change fees waived for customers who purchased tickets prior to March 1 for travel through April 30, and customers have until Dec. 31, 2020, to rebook for future flights; change fees waived for any tickets purchased by March 31.

Visit American Airlines’ website for more information.

Alaska Airlines: change or cancellation fees waived for tickets purchased on/before February 26, 2020 for travel through April 30, 2020; no change or cancellation fees for new tickets purchased between February 27 and March 31, 2020.

Visit Alaskan Airlines’ website for more information.

You should also read up on your airline’s general rebooking and cancellation policies. For example, Southwest allows customers to cancel any flight up to 10 minutes before departure and use those funds towards another trip. This policy existed before the coronavirus outbreak.

Coronavirus Travel Notices From The CDC

The CDC offers a helpful breakdown of travel notices, ranking the risk level (on a scale of one to three) for traveling to a given country. As of March 13, here are the countries that have a "warning level 3" notice by the CDC, which suggests people avoid "all nonessential travel" to these places because of "widespread, ongoing transmission" of the coronavirus:

  • Italy
  • China
  • South Korea
  • Iran
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Monaco
  • San Marino
  • Vatican City

A handful of countries are under a less intense travel notice advisory due to coronavirus. Japan is listed with a warning level 2 notice, with the CDC recommending people "practice enhanced precautions." And Hong Kong is listed with a warning level 1 notice, with the CDC recommending people "practice usual precautions."

Can You Fly Within The U.S. During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

Yes, you can still fly within the U.S., however, you might see drastically fewer options for domestic flights in the weeks to come.

In the beginning of March, United became the first airline to cut its U.S. domestic flight schedule by 10%, citing a drop in demand from passengers because of coronavirus. Then, on March 12, American Airlines announced significant schedule cuts, including "a 50% reduction in April trans-Atlantic capacity."

With that said, the situation with the coronavirus in any country can change rapidly. You’ll want to keep up to date on the state of coronavirus in any American city that you plan to visit, and then plan accordingly.

Should Immunocompromised, Elderly, Or Pregnant People Fly During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

Pregnant women do not appear to be more susceptible to coronavirus, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and there isn’t proof that the virus can be passed to the fetus. Still, Daniel Roshan, director of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine in New York City, told the Washington Post that he thinks pregnant women should avoid flying if they can help it.

On the other hand, the CDC reports that older adults and those with "serious chronic medical conditions" (like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease) are at a higher risk of getting "very sick" from coronavirus compared to the general population. As a result, it recommends they avoid "all non-essential travel" for the time being, including plane trips and traveling on cruise ships.

Should You Buy Travel Insurance Because Of Coronavirus?

Many large travel insurance companies have expanded their claims offerings amid the coronavirus pandemic, while others have cut coronavirus-related claims entirely. So the key is to read the fine print.

For Allianz Travel Insurance, for example, you can now file a coronavirus-related travel claim for the following reasons:

1. Under Emergency Medical Care and Emergency Medical Transportation Benefits: Emergency medical care and emergency medical transportation for a customer who becomes ill with COVID-19 while on their trip.

2. Under Trip Cancellation or Trip Interruption Benefits: Trip cancellation and trip interruption if a customer becomes ill with COVID-19 either before or during their trip.

3. Under Trip Cancellation Benefit: Non-refundable, non-transferable trip cancellation expenses for customers who purchased their plan prior to January 22, 2020 for trip components in Mainland China, South Korea, or the Lombardy or Veneto regions of Italy and departing prior to April 1, 2020.

With that said, many other travel insurers have released statements making it clear that they do not cover coronavirus-related claims, including Aviva, InsureandGo, Post Office, and LV. In a statement on its website, LV said that it was pausing the sale of travel insurance, explaining in part, "In light of the impact that Coronavirus (COVID-19) is having globally, we’ve made the difficult decision to pause the sale of travel insurance to new customers." Anyone who has already purchased travel insurance from LV will have that insurance honored, the company confirmed.

It’s worth remembering that most airlines are offering affected ticket holders the option to rebook their flights for a later date, or even to receive a refund in the form of travel credit. Of course, a lot of these travel waivers are dependent on specific dates, regarding when you purchased your ticket, and when you planned to fly.

If You Do Book A Flight Right Now, Will It Be Cheaper?

Yes, it’s possible that you might be able to book cheaper domestic or international flights during the coronavirus outbreak — but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Even if you’re super healthy, or in a low-risk age demographic for COVID-9, social distancing is one of the most effective ways to contain the spread of coronavirus, the CDC reports. And you can’t really practice social distancing when you fly. In other words, when you travel, you’re carrying germs along with you everywhere you go. So if you fly somewhere, get infected with the virus, and come home, you could pass that virus along to countless others along the way, even if you exhibit no symptoms at all.

Will You Be Quarantined If You Travel During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

As of March 13, U.S. travel restrictions on 26 European countries only apply to non-U.S. citizens, The New York Times reports. A full list of who is and isn’t allowed to enter the country, starting on Friday, can be found in this White House press release.

During an appearance on Fox and Friends on March 12, Vice President Mike Pence said that any Americans returning to the U.S. from those 26 European countries in the next 30 days will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, and enter the U.S. through one of 13 airports that have appropriate screenings set up. The White House has not named these 13 airports, but American Airlines did provide a list of approved airports where travelers from China have been screened:

  • Atlanta Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Dallas Fort Worth International Airport
  • Detroit Metropolitan Airport
  • Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport
  • New York JFK
  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Washington-Dulles International Airport

Americans flying to the U.S. from China, South Korea, and Iran will also be asked to self-quarantine upon arriving home.

How To Disinfect Your Plane Seat Area During The Coronavirus Outbreak

If you have to fly during the coronavirus outbreak, there are a few ways you can keep yourself as healthy as possible while you travel. According to The New York Times, you can clean your area with a disinfectant wipe, making sure to wipe down all of the hard surfaces around you. This includes the remote, screen, seatbelt buckle, seat tray, and seat pocket.

As for any leather or porous surfaces, like your actual seat, try not to wipe them down with wet wipes, because that can spread germs rather than kill them, The New York Times reports.

Airline Cleaning Protocols In Response To Coronavirus

Ultimately, there’s some reason to believe planes could be all around cleaner than they were before COVID-19 started spreading. “When I worked this weekend, everyone had a package of wet wipes and was wiping everything down,” one Atlanta-based flight attendant told Bustle for an earlier story. “This is probably the cleanest the plane has ever been.”

Separately, some airlines have ramped up their cleaning protocols during the coronavirus outbreak. Delta has recently announced a "fogging procedure," for example. In a statement, the airline explained that the process “disinfects surface areas that we all touch in the aircraft."

Similarly, Southwest has implemented a new "enhanced aircraft cleaning program," with the addition of a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. Per a press release, HEPA filters "filter out recirculated air onboard each plane to remove airborne particles." However, BuzzFeed News pointed out that coronavirus particles are too small to be filtered out of the air.

Other Ways To Protect Yourself From Coronavirus While Flying

There are a few standard strategies you can take to keep yourself as safe from germs as possible while you travel.

"People should take the same measures [for the coronavirus] that they do for the flu or any other virus," explains Dr. Janine Kelly, M.D., an attending physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. She offers a few tips and tricks: "Don’t touch surfaces that someone who has sick has touched. Wash your hands regularly and use sanitizer. Avoid contact with people who are sneezing and coughing."

And if you thought turning on your air inside the cabin was a bad idea, think again. “I know there has always been this myth that the air in the cabin recirculates, but that’s not actually true," a flight attendant told Bustle. "The air inside the cabin is filtered and comes from the outside. When you’re onboard, you’re not breathing in the same air over and over again at all.”

You can also deploy some basic sanitation strategies, like making sure you’re using hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol, as the CDC suggests, and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.

Dr. Mariea Snell, M.D., assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Program at Maryville University, tells Bustle that disinfectant wipes can also come in handy. As of March 11, the CDC does not recommend that Americans wear face masks, unless they personally know someone who is infected.

Ultimately, while traveling can increase the odds of your getting sick in general, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s cause for alarm. "It is important to be safe but it’s also important to not panic," Dr. Snell says.

Travel and health circumstances can change quickly with an outbreak. Consider following the CDC and the WHO on social media to stay up to date on the situation, especially if you have a trip planned.

Experts:

Dr. Mariea Snell, M.D., assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University

Dr. Janine Kelly, M.D., attending physician at Maimonides Medical Center

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.

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