My time on Delta Airlines 5308, seat 17B sent my cortisol levels through the roof. Because of “bad weather” and “air traffic”, the departure time was pushed back… and again… and again. As we sat on the tarmac at JFK for a good two hours, a maskless woman directly in front of me couldn’t stop coughing. They were sputtering, throat noises like I’d never heard before: minus your usual ack and more like huh-khleagggghhh. Since getting the shot, I haven’t really built my life around avoiding COVID, but I still prefer not to get sick. And this flight, scheduled for a Wednesday evening in early June, turned out to be more stressful than it should have been.
I didn’t end up contracting COVID, although I may have been lucky. Mask-wearing is no longer required by major airlines in the United States, and as anyone who has flown recently can tell you, even in a month of crowded summer travel and the rapid spread of BA.5 , Americans are done with masks. “Since the end of the mask mandate, I have flown to Europe, I have flown to New York, I have flown to Dallas-Fort Worth, and I have taken the plane to a few other places,” Henry Harteveldt, an airline-industry analyst, told me last month. “Depending on the destination, as few as 20% of passengers wear masks.”
I understand. Hiding for many hours on a flight is, to use a technical term, a pain. Enduring the discomfort of wearing a mask to reduce your risk, and that of everyone else, is a difficult task, especially when the risk of contracting COVID doesn’t seem likely to diminish anytime soon. But what if I tell you there’s a third option here – a way to split the difference between going face down on a plane and never taking off from that N95? And that this strategy allows you to nearly maximize your COVID protection with just a tiny fraction of the discomfort?
Here’s the cheat code: instead of covering up for your entire flight, just cover up at the beginning and end of it. Those crucial few minutes – first when you board the plane and then after landing – are only part of your travel time, but they are by far the riskiest for breathing in virus particles.
Everyone already knows how to turn off cell phone service when their flight is about to leave the gate, then turn it back on the second it lands. Something like the same principle could also work for masking. Call it “airplane mode” for your face: keep your mask on until your plane is in the air, then put it back on after landing. Otherwise, you are free to breathe in the cabin.
A commercial flight could seem as the scariest possible setup for the superspreader of COVID: hundreds of strangers who have been God knows where for the past few days crammed into a metal tube for hours. In these quarters, and given current infection rates, you most likely have at least one sick person on board. Indeed, people have caught the virus on planes, especially on flights without a mandatory mask. On a trip from London to Hanoi in early March 2020, a sick business class passenger ended up spreading COVID to 14 travelers and one crew member. But your chances of getting sick don’t stay the same during the flight, told me Joseph Allen, a Harvard public health professor who studies ventilation. When the aircraft is at cruising altitude, the risk will be at its lowest.
That’s because airplanes are equipped with anti-virus ventilation systems that put schools, restaurants, and other places to shame. About half of the stale, germ-laden air is expelled from the plane as the engines draw in more air from outside, and the other half is recycled by the HEPA filters. No other indoor place that people typically frequent can rival this level of ventilation: in a home, the air is refreshed every three hours. In a bank, it’s every 45 minutes. In a hospital operating room, that’s at least every five minutes. In airplanes, this cycle takes as little as two minutes.
But these primo ventilation systems aren’t always on, and they don’t always run at full throttle. To reduce fuel costs and exhaust emissions — at least before the pandemic — pilots often turn off the ventilation system while planes are at the gate, Dan Freeman, an expert in air conditioning systems, told me. safety management at Boeing. A passenger can sometimes feel that real-time difference: it might be a little hot and muggy when you first step on board; then the lights flash for a second and you hear the engine come to life, followed by a blast of cool air from the AC vent above you. To make matters worse, passengers huddle in the aisles during the hot and humid phase, huffing and puffing spray as they struggle to lift their bags into the overhead bins.
Even on the ground, with an aircraft’s jet engines offline, pilots can use other methods to power the ventilation systems. And at the start of COVID, airlines claimed they were making the most of it. In July 2020, for example, United pledged to “maximize airflow volume and cabin air recirculation for passengers from the moment they step on board.” But it is unclear if such measures are here to stay. Reps from Delta, United, American, and Southwest have all told me that, yes, they are still breathing fresh air while their planes are on the ground. (Spirit did not respond to a request for comment.) Anecdotal evidence is not as promising. In recent months, passengers armed with handheld screens measuring ventilation have tweeted out pictures of readings during embarkation and disembarkation which could indicate the presence of stale air. When a Bloomberg A reporter hauled around one of these monitors for several weeks of travel in April, she found that some of the highest carbon dioxide readings occur on planes, especially when boarding. (The benefits of HEPA filters wouldn’t show up on these monitors.) “It seems wildly variable,” Allen told me. “I don’t think we know what airlines do or don’t do and why it varies from plane to plane and airport to airport.”
So we shouldn’t think of airplane masking as an all-or-nothing binary, where you vacuum fabric for eight hours straight or give up masking altogether. Covering for minutes at the very beginning and very end of a flight makes a big, big difference. When the plane is stopped, definitely put on this mask; in the air, it’s normal to take it off. “Wearing your mask during these critical times is one way to reduce the risk of flying,” Allen said, making it “inferior to any other part of your trip.”
Let me show you how to put your face on airplane mode. The first step is to make sure you have an N95 or something equivalent. (A baggy cloth mask that’s two years old doesn’t cut it.) Then keep that mask on at least until your plane leaves the gate. “We’ll get the most bang for our buck with mask-wearing if we do it during boarding and disembarking,” Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, told me. You can also choose to wait a little longer before removing it, just to make sure the ventilation system has time to remove every bit of stagnant air. An extra five to 10 minutes should do the trick, Marr said. Or, if you can bear it, keep the mask on until your flight reaches cruising altitude. That’s when the plane’s ventilation peaks, Joshua Santarpia, an aerosol expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told me. He said when you can safely use your laptop, you can safely unmask yourself.
Putting your face on airplane mode won’t make sense to everyone. If the guy sitting next to you makes a misguided comment that he can’t smell anything today, even fully active cabin ventilation may not prevent contagion. And if you’re unvaccinated, elderly, or immunocompromised, any number of hours of extended masking might be worth it.
But for Americans weary from endless masking, this approach has the advantage of being entirely doable. Let’s look at the numbers: the average distance for a domestic flight in the United States is 905 miles and usually takes at least two hours. Boarding and disembarking takes about 50 minutes on average, Harteveldt said. If you mask only then, you will be free and clear for more than 70% of your trip. Naturally, the calculations get even better for long-haul international flights. On a trip from New York to Singapore, one of the longest commercial flights in the world, you could go 17 hours, or 93% of the trip, without a mask, with a marginal increase in your risk of getting sick.
Ideally, this could be an official airline rule. Maybe the Delta gate attendants would hand you a nice keep on climbing– stamped N95 when scanning your ticket, then you would see a small mask logo above your cabin row, next to the seatbelt sign that rings when turbulence hits. I asked Airlines for America, the industry trade group, if it would consider supporting such a very limited masking policy. “We are pleased that the CDC has lifted pandemic-era restrictions — including mask and pre-departure testing requirements — consistent with science and research,” a spokesperson told me. in an email.
For now, airplane mode is a choice, but it’s easy to do. The practice will be useful this summer of BA.5, but also in the future when COVID case rates are much lower. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the only airborne virus, of course, and while we’re not going into full flu or cold containment, a few basic precautionary measures may still be worth the cost. In 1977, an Alaska Airlines flight sat on the tarmac in Homer, Alaska for three hours to fix an engine problem. Within three days, 72% of the passengers had caught the flu. Maybe if people’s faces had been on airplane mode that day in Homer, a super broadcast event would have been avoided. “Do I like to wear a mask in public? Yeah, not even a tiny bit. But I hate being sick,” Santarpia said. “So if it’s flu season, am I going to wear a mask on the plane?” Yeah, you’re damn right, I’ll do it.