When Will It Be Safe to Fly Again? Experts Weigh In

Phased reopenings may make it hard for travel to return to normal any time soon.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit airlines hard. Travel has skidded to a stop, and the carriers that are still flying have reduced routes and nearly empty cabins. According to The Wall Street Journal, United Airlines is expected to report a $2.1 billion pretax loss thus far because of the coronavirus, which is the largest loss the airline has faced since the 2008 financial crisis. But as lockdown orders start to lift in certain areas, many travelers are wondering when it will actually be safe to fly again.

According to Janette Nesheiwat, MD, family and emergency doctor, you won't be able to walk down the jet bridge for a while. She explains that states have to meet "all the recommended phased guidelines for reopening," which includes a 14-day downward trajectory in the number of coronavirus cases. This is based on the White House's "Guidelines for Opening Up America Again" plan.

"A 14-day decrease trajectory in the number of cases allows a state to move into Phase 1. Once we enter Phase 2 (states with no evidence of a rebound from Phase 1), then travel can be done based on need only," Nesheiwat says. "Most likely, it will be several months before open travel will be available again."

One of the issues with free-will airline travel is that the state you're departing from could be in a different phase than the one you're traveling to. For instance, as reported by The New York Times, states like Alaska, Florida, and Maine have lifted lockdown orders but are forcing a two-week self-quarantine for any out-of-state travelers—so it's not like vacations are back on the table.

International travel, however, has even more barriers. The Pew Research Center reports that 91 percent of the world's population currently lives in "countries with restrictions on people arriving from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents, such as tourists, business travelers, and new immigrants." And 39 percent live in "countries with borders completely closed to non-citizens and nonresidents." Those regulations have to be lifted first, which is unlikely to be any time soon considering some airports are not allowing international flights at all.

"[Airlines are] seeing the challenge of regulations changing every two minutes," Lauren Uppink, head of aviation, travel, and tourism at the World Economic Forum, told Condé Nast Traveler in April. "You might be flying somewhere and 10 minutes before landing you learn there's a new rule on whether crew can actually enter the country or not. That's already happening and will continue until everything is back to normal."

Nesheiwat says that she understands the desire to make plans as lockdown orders lift and certain states reopen. While it's not recommended, if you do travel, she suggests driving in a car for the foreseeable future, as you can open windows to circulate fresh air.

And for those who don't have any option except flying? There are some safety measures you should follow when you take to the skies, says Brittany Brinley, DO, a physician board-certified in Internal Medicine, who flies around the country to help in hospitals.

"The best way to protect yourself would be [by wearing] a N95 mask that is able to block out all droplet particles," Brinley says. "Cloth masks and surgical masks keep germs to yourself so that you're not sharing with others, but they do not block all of the droplet particles that could contain coronavirus." And to learn more about how things will change with air travel, check out the 13 Things You May Never See on Airplanes Again After Coronavirus.

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