Tag Archives: social distancing

United Airlines 787 Dreamliner Polaris business class cabin Flight from Newark to San Francisco during coronavirus Wendy Perrin boys

If You Have To Fly in a Pandemic, Here’s Where to Sit on the Plane

UPDATE ON JULY 19: It’s been 14 days since Tim and the kids returned from California, nobody got sick, and both kids tested negative for Covid-19. (Tim was not tested.)  This update does not represent a recommendation that people fly; I am simply reporting the outcome of my family’s decisions, as described below.

As you know from Steps to Reduce Your Health Risk When You Fly, the problem with flying nowadays is likely not the air on the plane; scientists say the HEPA filtration system generates hospital-quality air. The problem is the close quarters and the unpredictable behavior of other passengers.  While it may be impossible to know with certainty how empty or full a flight will be or whether there might be passengers who refuse to wear masks (note: major U.S. airlines require passengers to wear masks), it is certainly possible—if you need to make an essential airline trip (remember, the CDC advises against non-essential travel)— to choose an aircraft layout and seat location so as to mitigate your risk.

That was my goal when I had to book a transcontinental flight for my husband and two sons. They flew from Newark to San Francisco on United Airlines on June 25. Based on their experience, here’s my advice for picking planes and seats so as to lessen your risk:

Know which airlines will keep seats empty during your flight.

Back in April when I booked the flight and chose the seats I wanted, United was blocking certain seats to try to maintain some space between passengers. But I knew I could not count on those seats remaining empty. United offered no guarantee that it wouldn’t fill every seat if it could. And, in fact, United is now no longer blocking seats; this week, the airline’s communications chief, Josh Earnest, said that blocking middle seats is just a PR strategy and not a safety strategy, since it still doesn’t keep passengers six feet apart.

By contrast, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Jetblue, and Southwest promise to keep certain seats blocked through at least the end of July: Alaska says it will block middle seats and cap flights at 65% capacity through July 31. Delta says it will block all middle seats, and some aisle seats in aircraft with 2×2 seating configurations, through September 30. Jetblue is blocking seats through July 31: middle seats on big planes, aisle seats on small ones. Southwest says it will block middle seats through September 30.

American and United are booking their flights to capacity when possible. United says it will alert passengers beforehand if their flight is “expected to be fairly full.” If you want to change your flight, the airline will let you do so for no fee; if you want to cancel, the airline will give you a credit toward a future flight in the amount that you paid. (See the “Prioritizing Your Well-being” section here.)  I recommend calling the airline ahead of time to check how full your flight really is (as opposed to waiting for the airline to alert you).

If you’re going to splurge on a business-class seat, pick an aircraft model where that will make a big difference.

I wanted a nonstop flight (to reduce time in airports), which limited my options to Alaska, Jetblue, and United. On United.com, as I pulled up flights during the search process, I compared every plane on offer between Newark and San Francisco by clicking to find out the aircraft model and view the seat map. My goal was to put as much physical distance as possible between my family and other passengers, and if there was ever a time when I was willing to pay more for that, this was it, so I checked out all the business-class options too. I saw that United was flying a 787-10 Dreamliner with the Polaris business-class cabin. The seat design means that you get something akin to your own cubicle onboard. Here’s a 3-D, 360-degree view of the cabin, so you can see how each passenger is partially shielded and how there are many solitary window seats with no aisle seat next to them. (If you hold your cursor down on the 3-D view and scroll in a circular fashion, you can “tour” the cabin.)  And the seats were surprisingly affordable (this was back in April, when the coronavirus outbreak was peaking in New Jersey).

It was the combination of the seat design, the cabin spaciousness, the newness of the plane, my elite status with United, and the price—plus the fact that if I needed to change the flights, United would have the most other flights to choose from—that made this option the best for my family’s needs. (If you’re comparing flights and can’t easily determine the aircraft model, seating configuration, and other seat details via the website you’re using, you can do your seat research on Seatguru.)

teenage boys traveling in business class United flight with masks on

My kids had seats with protective barriers.

When choosing your seat location, consider all the factors that might protect you from other people’s movements.

After studying the layout of the seats in the business-class cabin, I assigned my family seats in the last row. Here’s why I wanted the last row:

  • Since the business-class lavatory is at the front of the cabin, there would be no foot traffic past them to/from the lavatory.
  • The other passengers in the cabin would be seated in front of them, facing forward, so if any of those passengers were to cough or sneeze, they would hopefully do so in the opposite direction from Tim and the kids.
  • The aircraft door is immediately behind that row.  This increased the probability that my family could board the plane last and not have to walk past already-seated passengers. (Boarding the plane last meant they could avoid standing in line at the gate.) They would also probably be able to disembark first.

Tim reports that we made all the right decisions and that the flight felt very safe, as did the entire airport experience. Newark airport was empty. In the TSA line, nobody touched anything. At each gate was a gallon jug of hand sanitizer. When they boarded the plane, they were given wipes so they could wipe down their seat area. Every passenger Tim saw onboard wore a mask. Every airport staffer and traveler he saw at EWR and SFO wore masks, although a few passengers at SFO had their masks at their chins as they spoke on their mobile phones.

United flight crew attendant with mask around chin

The purser was the only person Tim saw onboard whose mask was not covering his nose and mouth.

Tim reports that there were only two exceptions to his sense of safety on the flight: (1) The United Airlines purser wore his mask at his chin instead of over his mouth and nose. (2) At the end of the flight, passengers were in a rush to get off the plane and kept only about two feet of distance from one another when emerging from their seats and moving from the plane to the jetway.

Based on my family’s flight experience, we have a few more tips to share:

When I dropped Tim and the kids off at Newark airport, they wore goggles, but they’ll be trying out face shields on the return flight.

  • Consider wearing a face shield (in addition to a mask). It can protect your eyes or at least prevent you from touching your eyes with unwashed hands.  When I dropped Tim and the kids off at the airport, they wore goggles recommended to us by a friend who is an E.R. doctor. The goggles fogged up, though, so I’ve shipped face shields to the boys for the return flight.
  • Use the lavatory earlier rather than later.  As you know from Steps to Reduce Your Health Risk When You Fly, the lavatory is cleaner earlier in the flight.  My family’s goal was not to use the lavatory at all.  And they succeeded!  They used the airport restroom immediately before boarding and immediately after disembarking. (And they report that everything in the airport male restrooms was touchless.)  During the flight, they never left their pods; they stayed nestled down behind their privacy barriers.
  • Bring a sweater. They turned their air nozzles on for purified air throughout the flight, but those nozzles blast cold air, so it got chilly.
  • Bring food. Newark airport was empty, with restaurants and almost everything else closed except for one convenience store on each pier. Tim and the kids brought deli sandwiches from home, in case the food service on the flight didn’t happen or didn’t appear to be safe. As it turned out, everything served to them—including silverware—came wrapped in plastic.


a wooden walkway over a stream in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. Photo: NPS

Hike Trails and Stroll Through Gardens Without Leaving Your House

Staying home is the safe thing to do right now, frustrating as it is to have to hunker down indoors now that spring is here. So we’ve found ways to help you connect with the great outdoors—all over the globe. Take a break from the anxiety and escape to one of the parks, gardens, or wilderness trails listed below. Or, if you’re in need of a culture boost, check out our ideas for virtual museum visits, landmark tours, and live concerts. Know of other cool virtual outdoor adventures to keep us travelers happy? Tell us about them in the comments.

National Parks

Google’s virtual experience Hidden Worlds of the National Parks is very cool. Through a combination of immersive videos, 360-degree tours, and interactive photos, park rangers share the secrets of five U.S. national parks and the animals that live there: Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico; Kenai Fjords, Alaska; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; Bryce Canyon, Utah; and Dry Tortugas, Florida. In one video, viewers fly with the bats out of Carlsbad Caverns; in Dry Tortugas, they “swim” through a shipwreck.

Hiking Adventures

To get yourself moving, though, see how far you can get on the Appalachian Trail…virtually, of course. Walk the Distance is an app that tracks your steps and applies them to the 2,000-plus-mile “AT” that stretches between Georgia and Maine. As you get farther along the trail, you’ll unlock checkpoints and see photos of your location. You can even see where your friends are so that you can motivate each other to keep moving. The app is available for iPhone and includes a few other routes as well, such as the Boston Marathon and some national park trails.

The YouTube channel Tall Sky Walker has a playlist of virtual outdoor hikes. The idea is to watch them as you’re on the treadmill, so that you feel like you’re actually on a wilderness trail instead of stuck within four walls. The scenery is gorgeous: a shoreline stroll around Moraine Lake in Banff; a snowy walk through Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park; a waterfall-to-waterfall hike also in Oregon. Even without a treadmill, these videos are worth the watch; they’re relaxing and serene, and yet surprisingly refreshing.

Train Trips, Drives, and Bike Rides

You can find plenty of virtual road trips and bike rides on YouTube. Virtual Road Trip’s videos compress drives through locales including the Delaware River Valley and the Hudson River Valley. The 4K Relaxation Channel features a bike journey along the California coast and a five-hour drive along Scenic Byway 12 in Utah (which is part of the American West you might not know about, but should).

Prefer to be a bit lazier? Sit back and soak in the Norwegian landscape as it crawls by in Slow TV’s seven-hour video of the train ride from Bergen to Oslo or the nine-hour train to the Arctic Circle, which you can watch in each season: winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Gorgeous Gardens

Gardens are getting into the game too. Stroll among the flowers of the United States Botanical Garden; walk through the trees of Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Rockford, Illinois; or feel fancy in the manicured park and gardens of the 18th-century Château de Bouges in France’s Loire Valley.

And since the coronavirus can’t stop cherry blossom season, you’ll want to find ways to watch those beautiful blooms. Cherryblossomwatch.com is an extensive website tracking the cherries in Washington, D.C. The National Park Service has a Bloom Watch too. If you have the patience, you can watch them grow live (and slowly) in Macon, Georgia, via a webcam partnership from Wesleyan College and Visit Macon. Or to feel a little immersed in the pink, head to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which has a virtual walk-through of its Japanese Hill-and-Pond garden and its Cherry Esplanade. (You can also explore other parts of the BBG via Google street view.)

Zoos and Aquariums

If you crave something a little “wilder,” plenty of zoos and aquariums are coming to the rescue. For instance, every weekday at 3pm ET, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Facebook page will feature different animals in a “Home Safari” video, in which zookeepers will share fun facts (hippos don’t actually swim!) and include a home activity for the kids.

Then there are all the live cams that are popping up. Monterey Bay Aquarium is giving everyone constant companionship with various video streams. Choose from the jelly cam, the coral reef cam, the penguin cam, shark cam, an open sea cam, and others. You can even gaze out over the Monterey Bay itself. Similarly, the San Diego Zoo is putting its animals in the spotlight. Get to know their apes, koalas, polar bears, and other adorable denizens. Watching them is addictive.


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