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How is coronavirus changing air travel?

Mirjam Benecke
June 16, 2020

Nearly all of Europe's borders have reopened, and airlines are once again back in business. If you plan to take a flight any time soon, here's what to expect.

A woman waits to check her bag at Düsseldorf airport, wearing a mask
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch

Travelers taking off on holiday within the European Union this summer shouldn't just be familiar with coronavirus regulations at their destination. Special rules also apply at airports and on board the aircraft.

What are the new airport procedures?

First things first: Passengers must wear a face mask covering their mouth, nose and chin "from the moment they enter the terminal building at the departure airport until they exit the terminal building at the destination airport," according to current guidelines published by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This rule doesn't apply to children under the age of 6 and people unable to wear a face mask for health reasons.

Read more: What will be the future of tourism in Venice?

Travelers are urged to change their face masks every four hours and wash and disinfect their hands regularly. Since check-in, boarding and the actual flight can easily take a few hours, passengers should carry one or two spare masks in their hand luggage.

Baggage, snacks and boarding — what's different?

At most German airports, passengers are now restricted to only one piece of hand luggage, a measure designed to reduce the risk of infection during security checks. During check-in and security scans, passengers are asked to keep a distance of at least 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) from each other.

On the first day of the reopening of Malpensa Airport, a man checks in for his flight wearing a mask
Passengers checking in for flights have been asked to stay at least 1.5 meters from each other and airline employeesImage: picture-alliance/abaca/Fotogramma/M. Alberico

In order to maintain the minimum distance, the German Airports Association (ADV) has recommended that airports and airlines "streamline" all passenger processes. Barriers and floor markings should be set up to help people waiting in line maintain the required distance. Other recommendations include opening additional check-in counters and blocking off seats in waiting areas, to leave space between passengers.

Travelers who like to pass the time between check-in and boarding with a snack or a drink should know that while eating and drinking are permitted, not all restaurants and shops at airport terminals have reopened.

Do airports and airlines require health checks?

At the moment, thermal imaging cameras and temperature checks aren't mandatory at German airports. Should they become a requirement, however, ADV has said airports are prepared.

Read more: Can the cruise ship industry keep coronavirus at arm's length?

Lufthansa has said it plans to offer coronavirus tests to passengers before departure. According to Der Spiegel newsmagazine, the airline intends to make the service available at Frankfurt and Munich airports beginning in early July, at the latest. Test results would be available within four hours. A spokesperson said the tests would be aimed primarily at passengers flying to countries that require a COVID-19 test upon entry.

Air travel during the pandemic

How great is the risk of infection on board?

Very low — at least according to the airlines and aircraft manufacturer Airbus. They have argued that the airflow in an aircraft cabin pushes any droplets expelled by passengers toward the cabin floor and not into the faces of nearby travelers.

"Thanks to special air filters that cause the air to flow from the top to the bottom of the cabin and completely replace the air in the entire cabin within just three minutes, the air on board our aircraft is as clean as in a medical facility," Germany's Condor airline writes on its website.

Read more: German COVID-19 warning app wins on user privacy

But virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit isn't convinced by the comparison. "In an operating room, there's usually only one person on the operating table surrounded by a few doctors," he said in a recent interview with Deutschlandfunk radio.

Schmidt-Chanasit, the head of virus diagnostics at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, said even if the air is thoroughly filtered, there's no such thing as risk-free travel. "A short 1-hour flight is different from a 10-hour flight overseas, or even a four to five hour flight from Germany to the Canary Islands," he said. The longer the flight, the greater the risk of infection.

Passengers wearing a face masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus COVID-19 boarding into an aircraft of the Swiss International Air Lines
Physical distancing is encouraged while traveling — when possibleImage: picture-alliance/S. Di Nolfi

Are airlines leaving middle seats free as a distancing measure?

Over the past few months, we've all learned that leaving space between people decreases the risk of infection. EASA has recommended that airlines leave middle seats empty, or even entire rows of seats. Airlines, however, must only follow these suggestions if the airplane's capacity allows it, meaning passengers don't have the right to a free seat on either side. Under those circumstances, a minimum distance of 1.5 meters can't always be guaranteed.

Dieter Scholz, an aviation expert at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, warned against underestimating the risks of air travel during the coronavirus crisis. "Flying during the pandemic could lead to a second wave of infection, and the spread of infection would be as fast as at the beginning of the outbreak," he said.

If you really have to fly, Scholz recommends booking a window seat in the last row, as far as possible from other passengers. He said passengers should also wear a face mask with a particle filter, if possible, and refrain from walking around the aircraft during the flight.