Flying and Coronavirus – should I cancel my flight?

We encourage you to look at official advice before you travel. Act responsibly, please do not travel if you feel unwell. We have cancelled our upcoming trips and we are not travelling internationally at the moment. Read our latest blog here.

There is a lot of attention to the coronavirus outbreak in the media at the moment, and people are concern about flying. An increasing number of airlines have banned flights to and from China, in a bid to stop the spread of the current strain of the coronavirus – given the name COVID-19. As we have several flights coming up, including Seoul, we did a bit of research to check if we should change our travel plans or not. Based on the current situation, we have cancelled all our upcoming travel. If you’re looking into whether you should be booking any travel right now, read our blog on what we would do in this situation.

The World Health Organization has declared the current coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic and global health emergency. Countries with weaker healthcare systems will struggle to cope with large influx of infected patients needing medical attention. Even first world countries like Italy is struggling to cope. Currently, it looks like the virus spreads through close contact. As a precautionary measure to stop it spreading and official government advice, British Airways, Virgin, Delta, American Airlines, Air New Zealand, Qantas, and many others have cancelled or scaled back flights to China and affected countries. At least 73 airlines have restricted flights to China. Ironically, now that China has got the situation under control, it has banned international flights entering.

The virus is catching on, with more cases appearing outside of China, with Europe and US going to be the new epicentre. We’re not doing any international travel at the moment. We will respect the seriousness of the situation, as our action might impact on others. Travelling to a region with high cases probably isn’t wise at the moment. So we’re being discerning.

We have also written a blog about how you can protect yourself financially if you decide to book a flight. COVID-19; should I be booking a flight now?

How deadly is the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

It’s important to look at the evidence available. Based on the current evidence and the data sample, figures suggest a mortality rate of 3.4% which is higher than influenza (the chart below was updated at the end of February). For comparison, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 killed 17% of people who contracted the disease. The Bird Flu outbreak in 2013, had a high mortality rate, killing nearly 40% of people with the disease. The SARS outbreak in 2002, killed 9.6% of individuals with the virus. The figure for COVID-19 is still evolving as the number of cases are still growing, so we can’t be certain. But these are tracked closely by officials and only time will tell what happens next. There’s frequent comparisons between COVID-19 made with SARS or MERS as they fall into the same family of viruses.

Mortality data early in an epidemic or pandemic will invariably be unreliable. Comparisons should also be done with a pinch of salt. It’s there to help you contextualise how bad things may get. You can’t compare apples to pears!

How COVID-19 compares to other coronaviruses

How does the virus spread?

Researchers still don’t know how the current strain of the coronavirus spreads exactly but it’s likely to be through airborne droplets (sneezing or coughing) and touching infected surfaces. What we do know is that it’s highly infectious. Similar to how the common cold or influenza spreads. On average, we touch our face more than three times an hour. Your hands might, therefore, carry the virus if you’ve touched infected surfaces. Hence why hand-washing is an effective way of reducing your risk of infections. This is also why close contact with infected individuals increases the risk. Social-distancing is an important practice to help limit the spread.

How to prevent it?

I’m sure you’ve read a number of different articles online about how you can prevent yourself from getting it. The WHO recommends the following:

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water – its recommended that the duration is aligned to how long it takes for you to sing happy birthday
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and make sure you throw it into a bin (catch it, kill it, bin it)
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cough or fever
  • Don’t touch your face or eat if you haven’t washed your hands (this is ours!)
  • Try not to touch any livestock
  • Stop eating uncooked meats or eggs
World Health Organization guidance on reducing the risk of coronavirus infection
The WHO’s guidance on reducing the risk of coronavirus infection

What happens on a plane?

A common myth about air travel is that when one person is sick on a plane, everyone will get sick because you’re breathing the same air. This is not true. The air quality control on commercial flights prevents this from happening by having advanced filtration systems. The air on planes usually consists of approximately 50% of outside air and 50% of filtered, recirculated air. Modern filtration system reduces the risk of potential health hazards including contaminants of bacteria, fungi, viruses, dust fibres, and ozone. More research is required to learn how it spreads, and whether breathing the air on a plane while flying is likely going to spread the coronavirus.

The risk on planes

The risk comes from touching or coming into close contact with infected individuals – defined as being within 1 metres for 15 minutes. As we still don’t know how the current strain of the coronavirus spreads, it’s hard to conclude what will happens when flying. However, researchers have looked at how influenza (flu) spreads on single aisle airplanes and found that passengers sitting in window seats have the lowest likelihood of coming into contact with an infected person. The virus is most likely to be transmitted to passengers within one row of the infected individual. According to the WHO, people outside a two-seat range usually have a low probability of getting infected.

However, people are unlikely to stay seated throughout the flight, and will make trips to the washrooms, so having healthy habits might help. The Center of Disease Prevention and Control (CDC)’s guidance promotes healthy habits when you’re on an airplane. It recommends washing your hands with soap and/or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizers. There’s evidence of coronaviruses lasting longer on surfaces than other viruses, around three to 12 hours, so washing your hands matter. Wiping down surfaces will also help prevent the spread.

What to do on a flight?

So the advice is clear; wash your hands, avoid touching your face and try not to come into contact with coughing passengers. Sitting by the window reduces your chances. We flew on British Airways’ First Class in the 747 recently, and the cleanliness on British Airways’ cabins have always been an issue for us as it’s frequently dirty. We had to do a Noami Campbell and wiped down our seats with sanitising wipes before we took off.

It’s outside of our control who we sit next to on a plane. We hope that airlines and airports remain vigilant with monitoring people that might be ill or have travelled to China or infected regions recently.

Face masks will help prevent the spread, if you’re infected (as you’ll cough/sneeze into the masks). Many people in Asia wear these to prevent spreading the disease if they have a cold. There’s no evidence to suggest it can prevent you from getting it by wearing a standard surgical mask. In fact, you might make it worse as people tend to adjust their masks regularly. It increases the number of times you touch your face. Special masks, N95, are recommended for healthcare professionals, not for the general public. They are also not designed to be worn for a prolong periods of time and you need to know how to put these on properly.

What to do if you have booked flights to affected regions?

Airlines will only provide a refund if they have cancelled your flight. Some have provided flexibility on bookings and will allow vouchers to be use at a later date. The problem is to reaching them a the call centres. They are inundated with high call volumes. Making it hard to speak to a customer service representative. For us, we would accept any refund rather than reorganising our flight. We would then purchase a new ticket at a later date once more is known. British Airways has now suspended all flights to many countries. But how long for? Only time will tell. Be weary, as airlines are ensuring they protect themselves first, so if you decide to cancel you will not be eligible for a refund. There is already a global downturn in flight demand resulting in lots of availability and price reduction. We suspect that once the flight restrictions have lifted the price will drop further to encourage people to travel.

For the latest advice and travel to affected regions be sure to check your official government websites for advice.

Travelling to affected regions

Containing the virus has been a Global response with countries dealing with it in different ways. Japan decided to quarantine people on a cruise ship, creating a petri-dish for the virus while Italy has a hard stance on the free movement of people. At the moment, the UK Government’s advice is against travelling internationally. The whole of Italy and Spain is now in lockdown, and airlines have cancelled flights to the region. Other European countries have also started to close their borders and mass gatherings, it’s important to respect the seriousness of the situation.

Make sure you understand the small print for any flights you are going to, or have booked. If you plan to travel, make sure you have adequate health and travel insurance. Read our guide on booking flights.

Visit the IATA travel page for information about the current travel restrictions imposed by countries.

Self-quarantine and social-distancing

We must all do our part to curb the spread of the virus. Simply to say; “it’s just like flu and not a big deal” is not respecting the seriousness of the situation for people at risk of a complication. People are dying from the disease. So if you do feel unwell and have mild symptoms, do self-quarantine for the recommended 7 days (UK Government advice). Also, please stay at home, you might feel OK, but you might be spreading the disease unknowingly.

BG1’s take on flying and coronavirus

We recommend to take official advice and not to travel at the moment. The situation is still evolving, so more evidence is needed to understand how the disease spreads, but we do know it’s highly infectious. What’s certain is that there is a lot of media attention and countless social media posts about this, so sometimes it’s hard to distil the truth from the myth. Be respectful.

Our advice is to be discerning with what you read online. Take recommendations from official government sources or organisations like the WHO, the CDC in the US or Public Health England in the UK.

Flying and coronavirus? Will we still fly? Well, given all the restrictions and not being able to get back, we will not. Importantly, we think we all have to do our part to limit the spread. The stigma associated with travel to affected regions will also be an issue.

Remain vigilant

We remain vigilant; do things that promote healthy habits, like washing our hands regularly and before we eat, trying not to touch our face, and wiping down the areas around our seats with sanitising wipes.

In the age of social media and information about coronavirus and flying is readily available online, like the virus, misinformation can spread quickly. Always look out for official pages and advice. Common sense and remaining vigilant is the best preventative measure against the virus. Just remember, we all have to do our part in helping to stop the spread. Don’t forget to practice good hygiene and self-isolate if you feel unwell. If you do travel, please respect the seriousness of the situation, and do you can to social-distance so that we can all work together to limit the spread.

Our prediction is that airlines will now start to cancel flights to most places, in light of the travel ban. So even if you decide to travel, it’s unlikely you will be able to! And when you get there you’ll need to self-isolate for 14 days!

Notes: This is our take on the situation with flying and coronavirus. You might want to do your own research before making your mind up on whether you should cancel your flight. If you have a different point of view be sure to comment below and let us know.

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