New Study Finds Coronavirus in Over 96% of Airplane Flights — Here's How to Stay Safe

COVID-19 travel guidelines have fluctuated these past few years as we've navigated the pandemic. And while face masks are no longer required on flights in the US, it's worth keeping up to date on the latest research around COVID-19 and flying.

While air filtration on flights is effective at reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission via aerosol, according to a 2020 study, the virus can still be present on planes. A recent study in Malaysia, for example, tested the wastewater from 29 flights for COVID-19 particles, as reported by Malaysian newspaper Sinar Harian (translated via Google). The researchers found the virus in 28 samples, with testing on the last sample yet to be completed at the time of reporting. While the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater doesn't guarantee transmission (particles can be found in an individual's feces regardless of whether they're symptomatic, asymptomatic, presymptomatic, or recovered, according to Forbes), it does emphasize that COVID-19 remains present on planes. As face-mask restrictions lapse, it's important to take this information into consideration while making your own safety decisions.

This study news comes shortly after the US government announced it would be bringing back stricter travel rules for people coming to the United States from certain countries.

In a Dec. 28 press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new rules were laid out for those traveling to the US from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Now those passengers 2 years and older must show a negative COVID-19 test before entering the US. The test can be a PCR or antigen test, but it must be conducted no more than two days before their departure. This new requirement will take effect on Jan. 5, and this applies to all travelers regardless of nationality or vaccination status. China has experienced a notable surge in COVID cases recently. Local governments have reported hundreds of thousands of new cases a day, per The New York Times.

So as COVID-19 continues to impact countries around the world, be sure to stay up to date on the latest travel guidelines, restrictions, and best practices.

In general, "vaccination plus COVID-19 prevention measures are our best strategy," Syra Madad, senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health and Hospitals, tells POPSUGAR. This includes getting fully vaccinated; receiving your booster dose, if eligible; getting tested before any gatherings; wearing a mask inside when around others; and being mindful when you remove your mask for food or beverage.

Here are a few other travel tips to keep in mind.

What to Consider Before Flying During COVID

Anytime you travel among large groups of people, you're putting yourself at risk. The CDC highlights a few things to think about before you travel:

  • Make sure you're up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, if eligible.
  • Check the current COVID-19 situation at your destination.
  • Make sure you understand and follow all state, local, and territorial travel restrictions, including mask-wearing, proof of vaccination, testing, or quarantine requirements.
  • If traveling by air, check if your airline requires any testing, vaccination, or other documents.
  • Prepare to be flexible during your trip, as restrictions and policies may change during your travel.
  • Consider testing before travel, as close to the time of departure as possible, and no more than three days before travel.

COVID Safety Tips While Traveling and in the Airplane

  • Be sure to pack enough masks for all travelers. Children ages two and up are recommended to wear masks in travel and public transportation settings, per the CDC. Experts recommend KN95 masks since they offer the best protection.
  • Wear a mask the entire time, making sure to keep your nose and mouth covered. If you can, eat and drink before getting on the plane so as to avoid taking your mask off during the flight.
  • Social distance when you can (six feet if possible), and avoid contact with anyone who is sick or has symptoms.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding contact with frequently touched surfaces, such escalator handrails, elevator buttons, and credit-card machines. If you have to touch them, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer afterward. Right now, many airlines are doing enhanced cleaning procedures between flights, but you can also sanitize your own seat with wipes before sitting down.
  • If you must travel by bus or train during your trip, social distance when possible, and keep your mask on at all times.

What to Do After Traveling

The CDC's after-travel recommendations are the same for all travelers, regardless of vaccination status. Monitor yourself and those you've traveled with for COVID symptoms. If your travel placed you in a high-risk exposure scenario (e.g. a crowded place while not wearing a mask) or you have COVID symptoms, the CDC recommends you get tested. Make sure to follow all state, tribal, local, and territorial recommendations or requirements after travel.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones and Maggie Ryan