If you spend a lot of time on social media, you’ve likely seen an increasing number of travelers griping about their air travel woes. The general complaint is that airlines are not living up to their promises to allow for social distancing on airplanes. To this I say… if you’re flying and you think you can properly social distance, you need to think again. Distancing while traveling is impossible, and I wish airlines would stop legitimizing these complaints with silly plans to keep middle seats open.
The reality is that if you want to fly, you have two choices:
- Accept the proximity risks involved with flying and mitigate likelihood of contracting the disease the best you can.
- Don’t fly.
The Rise of the Distancing Myth
The seeds of this conflict have been brewing ever since the pandemic began. As we know, the virus seems to be very-efficiently carried through tiny droplets of moisture that a person exhales. Those droplets don’t travel far, so we’ve collectively settled on 6 feet between people as the proper distance to reduce the likelihood of transmission. This makes perfect sense, but it is impossible to carry out if you’re traveling by air.
That reality is why air travel plummeted as fast and as far as it did. Nobody wanted to take chances, and it was an instinctive, fear-based response on top of a scientific truth. It’s that truth that pushed airlines to quickly jump into action to try to do everything they could to assuage concerns. They improved cleaning procedures, changed service flows, and removed touchpoints. This was in addition to the simple eduction process dispelling myths. For example, people just think airplanes recycle air, infecting everyone. In reality, nearly all commercial airplanes have high-grade HEPA filters that efficiently prevent the virus from spreading through ventilation systems.
All of this was good, but then the airlines just had to take it further and shoot themselves in the foot. With airplanes empty, it didn’t seem like a risk to say they’d block middle seats and help to encourage distancing on airplanes. But guess what? More people have started flying again compared to the nadir back in April. That combined with the drastically reduced schedule means that some flights are filling up. And now you see posts like this:
All the airlines have been spouting off about what they’re doing to keep people safe, and that is now backfiring badly. Delta has been out front on this, trying to keep a premium image by saying it will add flights in order to keep loads below 60 percent. JetBlue just doubled down and said it’ll block middles through July 4. There are plenty of other examples, but here’s the problem… This does not in any way enable proper social distancing. You need closer to 10 percent loads if you want to do that.
The Impossible Dream of Proper Distancing
Let’s look at one of the most common airplanes flying, a 737. Imagine a layout with 32 inches of seat pitch. Now imagine someone sitting in a window seat. What does 6 feet of buffer look like?
If you force everyone to sit in a window seat, then you can get 2 people per row. But you’ll still need to skip two rows in either direction to get full buffer, and you’ll have to assume those people will actually stay in their window seats. That means for every seat that’s full, you need 14 empty. That is just not feasible in any way.
I know what you’re thinking. Sure, it’s not perfect, but at least it gives you more space and exposes you to fewer people in a direct line of contact. That is true, but it hardly creates a “safe” environment from a distancing perspective. There is still plenty of exposure to many other people, and that’s only one small part of the total journey. From an airline perspective, there just isn’t a way to justify blocking all those seats if the demand is there to fill them. Travelers just need to accept that they can’t properly distance if flying commercially.
Mitigate With a Mask… ALL of You
That being said, there are precautions that can be taken to mitigate the risk. TSA now lets travelers bring through 12 oz of sanitizer so anyone can douse their surrounding seat/tray table area. Even if people don’t bring it, airlines are all handing out sanitizer in addition to the cleaning they do on their own. Oh, and here’s another tip: It’s best not to kiss strangers with an open mouth while on board.
The most important tip of all, however, is a simple one: Wear a damn mask.
Some people think they’re too good to wear masks, and that results in posts like these:
Wearing masks is required. That is good. But not everyone is complying, and that is shameful. If you’re on an airplane and you don’t have some medical issue that makes it impossible for you to do it, put your damn mask on. Stop being selfish. This isn’t about you. Wearing a mask is about protecting others around you. That means when others do it, you benefit.
If you’re on an airplane with someone not wearing a mask, ask them politely to put one on. Airlines have masks onboard if they don’t have one themselves. If they refuse, I recommend public shaming… but should we really be expecting airlines to police this on the airplane? No.
Airlines should make general announcements and offer the masks that are onboard for those who forgot. But think of someone who won’t wear a mask or takes it off during the flight. Chances are this isn’t someone who forgot; it’s someone who doesn’t believe in science and/or “limiting personal liberty.” That’s a despicable approach considering that wearing a mask has been shown to reduce the chance of transmission. But should flight attendants become enforcers for the greater good? That’s not going to end well for anyone. If the government wants to get involved and fine people who don’t obey, great. But otherwise, this is just a requirement without teeth once everyone is in that metal tube together.
In the end, if you fly, there is no way to properly distance from other travelers, and some jerks will take their masks off or not wear one at all. This is true in all phases of the travel experience. In the end, you simply have to get used to the fact that if you fly, your chance of exposure goes up. I wish airlines would stop trying to make people think they’re going to be able to distance. They’re just adding unnecessary fuel to the proverbial fire.