S.how of hands: would you board a plane if you knew you had Covid? This is the question posed to some of my friends recently, and the results horrified me – about half (somewhat sheepishly) admitted that they would. It’s even worse considering the context: tomorrow the wearing of facemasks on flights to and within Europe ceases to become an official joint recommendation of the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
While airlines may continue to enforce their own rules – for example, when flying to a destination that legally requires mask-wearing – it’s clear that the mood has shifted.
Patrick Ky, the EASA’s executive director, said: “Passengers should continue to comply with the requirements of their airline and, where preventive measures are optional, make responsible decisions. ” I’m sorry, Patrick, but I’m nowhere near as trusting as you are of my fellow passengers.
A plane’s filtration system can renew air every three minutes, according to the International Air Transport Association
Even when the rules were in place there were flouters – those who insisted on turning their facemasks into chin hammocks; the man one of our writers spotted on a flight expediently sucking a lolly for four hours – and now it’s set to get worse.
The most popular travel article on our website for the past few months is about the destinations you can visit if you’re unvaccinated. There’s clearly a huge appetite among the vaxxed and unvaxxed to get away, and this combined with masks falling out of favor is putting Covid-cautious travelers in an invidious position.
What of the immunocompromised? According to the Office for National Statistics, the risk of death involving Covid remains significantly greater for the disabled and those with long-term health issues. “The people who have been shielding have had their lives put on hold in a far greater way, and to hear people complaining about masks and saying they would fly with a positive test result is shocking,” said Stephen Griffin, a virologist and member of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
“I hope they realize how ridiculous it sounds to someone who hasn’t been able to leave the house for two years,” he said. “We are all free to make choices, but when those choices affect other people it becomes more questionable. On your next flight you could be sitting next to a really unwell person who has just finished going through chemo. “
According to the International Air Transport Association, a plane’s filtration system can renew air inside the cabin every three minutes, which is roughly ten times more often than in the average office. If it was possible to be beamed up to your seat like Scotty, then great – book me a flight. But that’s not the full story.
Last Sunday I was in the security queue at Dublin airport – sorry, make that the security conga line. Hundreds of us were told to snake backwards and forwards for the best part of an hour, at some points even to move closer to each other. The staff were doing their best, but social distancing? Non-existent. And I was practically alone in wearing a mask.
This scene is playing out in airports up and down the country, and the travel chaos won’t be solved any time soon. Heathrow announced that five million passengers traveled through its terminals last month, an 848 per cent rise on last year, when there were tight restrictions. It’s going to be a very busy, very crowded summer.
“An airport can become high risk if it is crowded and people are unmasked,” said Abraar Karan, a fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine at Stanford University. “While we expect people would stay home if sick or symptomatic, because infections may be milder now people may choose to still fly.”
Given the huge cost – financially and logistically – of aborting a trip at the 11th hour, it’s easy to see how those like my sheepish friends might choose to rationalize Covid symptoms as “just a little sniffle” rather than scrap a sought-after getaway. And, to be fair, before the pandemic who among us would have canceled a flight for fear of passing on a cold, or perhaps worse?
But you have to admit that if you test positive before heading to the airport and still choose to fly, you’re acting selfishly. You are choosing your enjoyment over other people’s wellbeing, and forcing them to unwittingly roll the dice on whether they get seriously ill.
If you’re not worried about others’ health, what about your own? There’s no guarantee that mild symptoms will stay that way for long, and you could deteriorate once you arrive at your destination. Long Covid is still a risk – it can “follow a very mild course of infection and still cause profound disability”, Griffin said. And a new variant could be just around the corner. At the end of last year it was reported that Omicron doubled your risk of catching Covid on a plane, and now “it’s about to overtake Delta in terms of deaths”, according to Griffin.
So how easy is it to do the right thing? Not very, it seems. “Travelers who are thinking of canceling due to having Covid should first check with their insurance company if they will be covered for cancellation or rebooking costs,” said Noel Josephides, director of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. “They may well not cover cancellation charges now that it is no longer a legal requirement in the UK not to travel if you have Covid.
“If you have booked with a tour operator, talk to them about whether they can reschedule your holiday and what the costs of doing so will be. Amendment fees may be charged. “
Tommy Lloyd, managing director of Medical Travel Compared, said: “It’s vitally important that travelers have the correct Covid protection in place within their insurance policies so they are covered should they be forced to change plans at the last minute.”
I’ll certainly be scrutinising the small print. I’m in the process of booking my honeymoon to Costa Rica – I haven’t had a proper holiday since before the pandemic; I obeyed all the rules and arguably deserve it. But if I test positive I’m going to reschedule, simply because it’s the right thing to do.
And if or when I do go, I will fly wearing a mask – even if I’m the only one.