How to Stay Safe and Reduce Your Coronavirus Risk While Flying, According to an Expert

If you do plan to board a plane in the near future, here are six steps to take

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 02: Passenger go through TSA screening at a nearly-deserted O'Hare International Airport on April 2, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. The airport, which typically serves 8.2 million passengers a month, has closed two of its seven runways as the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced air travel. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images). Photo: Scott Olson/Getty

As stay-at-home orders begin to lift across the nation and countries are reopening to tourists, travelers are thinking about when — and how — they'll feel comfortable flying again.

Many airlines have been working on new ways to make flying safer amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: requiring face masks, temperature checks, socially distanced seating and more. That said, airports and airplanes are full of people, often packed in close together, so there is no guarantee that passengers will not come in contact with the virus.

If you need to fly or choose to take the risk in the near future, here are a few things you can do to further reduce your chances of catching — or spreading — COVID-19 while on a plane, according to a medical expert.

1. Wear a proper mask throughout your entire journey

“Passengers need to protect themselves by wearing masks throughout the airports and for the duration of the flights,” Robert A. Norton, a professor of Public Health at Auburn University and a member of several COVID-19 task forces tells PEOPLE. “COVID-19 remains primarily a respiratory disease, so masks are the best defense we have available today."

Per guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), masks are essential in helping to slow the spread of the virus. Be sure both your mouth and nose are securely covered when wearing a mask in public.

"Cloth face coverings may prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading respiratory droplets when talking, sneezing, or coughing," according to the guidelines. "Since people may spread the virus before symptoms start, or even if people never have symptoms, wearing a cloth face covering may protect others around you. Face coverings worn by others may protect you from getting the virus from people carrying the virus."

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2. Check your temperature before going to the airport

While many airlines are checking travelers’ temperatures before they enter their aircraft, Dr. Norton suggests taking your own temperature before you even leave for the airport in order to check for a fever, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.

“If individuals experience any symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 infections, they should delay their travel,” he urges, adding, “Don’t travel if you feel ill! Don’t try to hide your symptoms, as this puts you and other people at risk.”

Plus, passengers with temperatures over a certain threshold will be denied boarding — so checking your temperature prior to heading to the airport will save you the trip if you do have a fever.

3. Practice proper hygiene with handwashing and hand sanitizer

The TSA and individual airlines have been relaxing rules on how much liquid hand sanitizer passengers can bring on board since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Norton suggests checking with your airline to determine how much hand sanitizer you can bring on board, and which types are permitted.

“Even though fomites (contaminated inanimate objects) are not a major source of infection, good hygiene is essential,” he says. The CDC says that people can use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol as an alternative to handwashing, but notes that it’s not nearly as effective as hand washing. While water and soap can completely remove germs, hand sanitizer mostly just reduces the number of microbes, leaving potential viruses on the skin.

With this in mind, Dr. Norton also suggests people take every opportunity “to wash hands before entering the aircraft and immediately upon disembarking.”

Woman applying hand sanitizer or soap

4. Use disinfectant wipes on high-touch surfaces

While airlines have increased cleaning and disinfecting of plane cabins, Dr. Norton says it never hurts to carry a small pack of disinfectant wipes with you to wipe down high-contact areas like tray tables, seat handles, seatback screens and more.

“Wiping down a tray table with a disinfecting wipe is always a good idea, even when beyond the pandemic,” he says. “This will help protect during cold and flu season and help prevent infection with other viruses and pathogens, like norovirus, which can be a real problem for those traveling, particularly if in direct contact with an infected person, or the surfaces that individual will touch.”

5. Keep as much distance as possible between yourself and other passengers

According to Dr. Norton, whether you’re sitting in the window, middle or aisle seat isn’t correlated with how likely you are to catch COVID-19 — what matters is how far away you are from potential virus carriers. To put it most simply: “You want to be as far away from an infected person as possible,” he says.

You don’t need to fight for the window seat as some have suggested, according to Dr. Norton. “Closer proximity to the person of infection, no matter which seat you are sitting in, brings higher risk,” he says. “An infected person shedding virus could be in any location on the plane. That’s why prescreening passengers before allowing them on board is so important.”

If you have the chance to sit by fewer people, take it, he says. And keep your distance from others as much as possible throughout your entire journey.

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6. Discuss travel with your doctor if you have a respiratory disease

“Masks are sometimes an issue for people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma or COPD, given that they cause resistance to airflow, making it more difficult to breathe,” Dr. Norton says. “For those that have these types of problems, they should talk to their healthcare provider before traveling.”

Airlines pressurize their cabins to an altitude higher than sea level while in the air, which can make breathing even more difficult, Dr. Norton says. Those with respiratory conditions should discuss the risks with their doctor and come prepared with the proper mask so that they do not experience difficulty breathing and are forced to remove their mask and potentially expose themselves or others to the virus.

“Homemade cloth masks tend to be thicker than the lightweight double-ear loop masks,” Dr. Norton warns. “A lightweight mask may be a better option.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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