Rain drips down the airplane window as the engines await departure with their slow deep rumble. I hear seat buckles click. There are so many people surrounding me, so many that, for a moment, I forget we are in a pandemic. But then I feel my hot breath stir in my mask, and I wonder if those around me are also thinking about the stuffy feeling that they are about to endure for the next eight hours.
In January, I flew home from London to Portland, Oregon. What I had expected to be reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland was more like a carnival. In airports, there were people all around me, and the line to go through customs took nearly two hours with no social distancing in place. On the planes, bookings were at full capacity.
As my first flight took off, United Airlines played a video showing the company’s dedication to disinfecting before each flight. With it, a video explaining the chances of viral transmission on an airplane flashed in front of me.
“When seated and wearing a mask, research showed an average .003% of infected particles crossed into your breathing zone, and 99.99% were filtered out of the cabin within six minutes,” it said.
Even if the risk of coronavirus transmission is low while flying, it isn’t non-existent. During my 19-hour journey, I had two layovers, and I sat front to back with other people, and with the ongoing, politicized argument of mask usage, there were several contrasting characters among me. Some wore goggles, gloves and an N95 mask. Others wore paper-thin neck scarfs, while a few left their nose hanging out like a dangerous turtle poking its head out from its shell.
Because I flew internationally, I was required to present a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before departure. For domestic travel, however, no such order was in place. So while I felt secure flying back from England knowing that those around me had also tested negative within the past few days, when I arrived in Chicago to board my next flight, my initial sense of safety quickly faded.
In May, domestic flights were down almost 75% from 2019, but that figure has now changed, and it is closer to 40%. This recent increase in domestic travel was evidenced by my surroundings, and despite an increase in national coronavirus cases, it seems that people are becoming more comfortable with air travel.
Regardless, feelings of trepidation surely linger. One passenger, who was flying home after visiting family, told me how she felt about the whole experience.
“Before the pandemic, flying was such a positive experience for me, especially knowing I was going home to see friends and family, but now, I worry about going home and getting other people sick,” she said.
There is no 100% safe way to travel. It is a nerve-wracking experience, and it will continue to be until everyone is vaccinated. Even if the risk is low, the passenger must recognize they are still potentially putting themselves and others in danger.
If I could give anyone advice, it would be to stay home and avoid traveling if possible.
Mariah Botkin is a third-year studying journalism and comparative literature at the University of Oregon.