Even sitting in a taxi on the way to the airport felt strange. Myself, my husband, and my 1-year-old daughter huddled together in the back of the car, driving down (an almost completely empty) Sheikh Zayed Road, at what would usually be peak time. We wore masks and gloves, and I clutched a packet of Dettol wipes to clean my daughter’s hands if she managed to touch anything. This was at the height of lockdown, when airports were closed and the message throughout most of the world was “stay at home”. We hadn’t ventured beyond our front gate in over a month. But, due to us finding ourselves between jobs and without health insurance during a global pandemic, we had to catch a repatriation flight back to the UK.
Are safeguards in place?
My experience was an exception. Now things are different. Airports are opening again and many people can choose to fly for whatever reason they wish. With the UAE being a transient country, full of expats desperate to see friends and family, one big question remains: is air travel safe?
The answer isn’t straightforward, but carriers like Emirates Airlines have certainly gone a long way to ensure it’s as safe as possible. Hygiene kits containing gloves, masks, hand sanitiser, and anti-bacterial wipes are distributed, and there’s thermal screening at the airport. On the flight, crew are dressed in PPE, and there’s a modified service to reduce infection.
The main worry among potential travellers is about recycled air on board. When presented with this question, Emirates confirmed that the air on-board is renewed regularly.
“Throughout the flight, the air in our modern aircraft cabins is cleaned with advanced HEPA air filters as powerful as the ones used in hospitals,” their spokesperson said. “These remove 99.97 percent of viruses and eliminate dust, allergens and germs from the cabin air for a healthier and safer on-board environment. The air is fully renewed every two to three minutes. After each journey and on landing in Dubai, each aircraft will go through enhanced cleaning and disinfection processes to ensure safety and proper sanitation.”
Based on this, it would be reasonable to assume that air travel is safer than visiting other spaces with groups of people. However, it’s not only about air filtration. According to epidemiologists the four things to consider are time, space, people, and place – therefore the lowest risk behavior would be spending a short time, in a large outdoor space, with a small number of people you know.
What can passengers do to make it safer?
The problem is that if we are living with the “new normal” for a considerable amount of time, eliminating all risk may not be possible. This means that at some point, many people are going to have to assess their own circumstances and make decisions.
According to a study in The Journal of Environmental Health Research, we are indeed more likely to catch a cold or virus on a plane than in every day life. This is partly due to low levels of humidity at altitude, which dries up mucus in our nasal passage that usually acts as a defense system. The regular air renewal practices that Emirates mentioned will help to mitigate this, but there are also things you can do to prevent contraction yourself.
- Stay hydrated. This will help your nose and throat with the dry air.
- Wash your hands. You might be bored of hearing this, but it works.
- Use the sanitary kit. Sanitise your seat and table before using it, and keep everything clean.
- Choose your seat wisely. Window seats away from the toilet will minimise your contact with other passengers.
- Make sure you have all the legal documents required for the country you are visiting. Read up on the rules and stay up-to-date with changes, because you don’t want to be stuck in an airport.
Should I travel with children?
Plenty of people have taken an educated decision to board a plane with their family in tow. One of these people is @justtwomums blogger Rebecca Davis, who flew to Sweden with her husband and children, aged three, four, and eight, last week. “My husband lost his job due to the current situation,” she explains. “Our kids were climbing the walls and we felt that this was our chance to turn a negative into a positive and get a whole summer as a family back home.”
Rebecca says that she was impressed with the safety in the airport and on the plane. “Everyone was masked-up and there was social distancing everywhere. I never once felt like I was put in a compromising situation.”
While some had a smooth ride, others didn’t find the journey as easy. Bella Tanner, who documents life as a mum to 14-month-old Willow via her Instagram @bellatanner, had a panic attack on her flight from Dubai to London. “That was due to people around me being erratic, and Willow coughing due to a dry throat,” she says. “It was heightened because I felt claustrophobic in the mask.” Although she found the experience challenging under the strange circumstances, she adds that the staff were amazing.
Although some parents weighed up the options and decided to fly, others chose not to. Probably the most prominent mums to make that call are Kacey Ernst and Paloma Beamer, who were quoted by CNN in a post that went viral. The experts from the University of Arizona said: "We have been thinking through this issue as moms and as an exposure scientist and infectious disease epidemiologist…[We’ve] decided personally that we're not going to fly right now.”
The women cited exposure to infected people and exposure to contaminated surfaces as the two main risk factors in their decision making.
Is there a way of making air travel with children safer?
Both Rebecca and Bella agree that the new procedures made them feel relatively safe. However, it can be hard to make children aware of social distancing and hygiene precautions. Rebecca had a chat with her kids before the flight, but she found it hard to stop her 4-year-old from touching things. “We ended up using large amounts of hand sanitiser,” she says. Bella’s main concern was Willow putting her fingers in her mouth – a worry many parents of babies and toddlers will share. She created her own system to keep everything around them clean: “I changed my gloves after using the sanitiser on them five times, and I used the sanitising wipes in the Emirates kit to clean our area regularly.”
My own experience was similar. Small children don’t understand social distancing or pandemic-style hygiene. My daughter, Amelie, was trying to crawl down the aisles and investigate everything. If you’re flying with kids under five, here are some tips to consider…
- Take a blanket so that they can sit on the floor with some toys.
- Bring snacks, and lots of them! There aren’t many food options on flights and most airport shops are closed.
- Find gloves and masks that fit properly. You’ll be wearing them for a long time, so you need to be comfortable.
- Put hand sanitiser and wipes in an easy-to-access zip in every family member’s bag.
Hopefully this article will help you reach an informed decision. And whatever you decide to do, stay safe.