On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, the staff writer James Hamblin and the executive producer Katherine Wells discuss the perils of air travel and the best ways to prepare for it.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: We’ve got a question for you from an anonymous person:
I am a healthy 76-year-old thinking about taking a nonstop flight from Nevada to Baltimore. I want to see my daughter and her family, including my grandkids, who have been fantastic about quarantining. I could self-isolate in their basement. For the flight, I have an N95 mask and gloves, and a protective face shield. Icing on the cake—I can wear a diaper to avoid public restrooms. Should I get on that plane?
James Hamblin: The answer for her, just to cut right to it, is that she should get on the plane. She shows, just in that question, a level of vigilance and attentiveness that if everyone were that thoughtful and careful about the precautions they took, we’d all be able to travel safely.
The air in the cabin of a plane is constantly turning over. A lot of new air is coming in from the outside, and whatever air is recirculated is run through these high-efficiency HEPA filters, the same things they use in hospitals. They’re rated to catch 99.9 percent of viruses. And the whole cabin’s air is supposed to turn over every two to three minutes. The chance of spreading a virus widely within the cabin of a plane is next to zero as long as that system is on. And there haven’t been confirmed cases of coronavirus spread on airplanes to more than one other person ever since we started having people rigorously wear masks and told sick people to definitely not travel. There have been cases where sick people have traveled internationally and people around them have not gotten sick.