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What can travellers do to protect themselves from the coronavirus? What risks lurk at airports? And in planes? In an interview with Pro Sky, Dr. Markus Egert, Professor of Microbiology and Hygiene at Furtwangen University, explains which measures make sense and which are ineffective.
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Should you wear a mask on planes or at airports?
Does it make sense to wear a mask on board a plane or at the airport?
"It's really not necessary. An exception is when you are ill yourself. The mask then helps to protect those around you. Generally, healthy people only need to wear masks when they are in frequent contact with people and potentially ill people, for example, doctors. Otherwise, masks cause confusion and uncertainty."
What risks are there from surfaces in planes and at airports?
Should you avoid touching surfaces in planes and at airports?
"There is a certain risk of infection, but it shouldn't make you anxious. It's important to just wash your hands."
How long can the virus survive on surfaces?
"Viruses on surfaces do not stop being active within minutes and may persist for several days. It depends on the type of surface. Metal is different from plastic, cleaned surfaces react differently than uncleaned ones. But it is correct to say that affected surfaces will remain infectious for a while."
Then it would make sense to disinfect surfaces such as your seat and table, wouldn't it?
"It wouldn't do any harm, but it's only really giving you peace of mind."
But airlines are occasionally disinfecting entire aircraft. Are they overdoing it then?
"This is more about marketing. Normal cleaning would be sufficient. Exceptions are only when a flight is coming from a high-risk area or an infected person has been on board. Disinfecting won't of course do any harm, but if it hasn't been done, you shouldn't be anxious about boarding."
Many are now preferring to use the traditional way of checking-in instead of using self-check-in with touch screens. Is that sensible?
"If you're anxious about touching the screen, just wash your hands afterwards. The traditional check-in is not necessarily safer. Staff at the desk might be infected, maybe you have to queue for a long time and therefore come into close contact with infected people. I don't think passengers should worry about using self check-ins."
Does wearing gloves help?
"Washing hands would be my advice to travellers. Viruses can stick to gloves. So it won't help if I touch my face with them. And they can give you a false sense of security, so you then perhaps wash your hands less often."
What should one consider when boarding and choosing a seat?
There is an increased demand from passengers wanting a window seat when booking. Are window seats safer because they are more isolated?
"There is some logic there. Sitting in a window seat means you'll probably have much less contact with other passengers. However, short-term contact is not the significant factor here. More significant is who's sitting around you."
How close does someone have to be for me to get infected?
"The person must be sitting close to infect you. I would say at a distance of one or two rows."
Suppose a person with cold symptoms is sitting right next to me. What's the best thing to do?
"It's important to keep your distance. As a rule, crews will therefore try and move such persons or offer them a mask. If this doesn't happen, politely point it out. Otherwise there's not really much you can do. What you can do is ask the person sitting next to you to sneeze into the crook of their arm. And try to turn away. Read a magazine and use it to shield yourself from droplets."
When should you be especially careful?
"When boarding and disembarking. Whenever things get crowded, when things need to be quick and people get close to each other. Other passengers are the biggest risk. Direct contact is the problem."
You should then try to get on the plane as late as possible, shouldn't you?
"That would help. But the instructions of the ground staff must be followed. From what I know, special boarding is also available depending on health circumstances."
How risky is the air in a plane?
Can "high efficiency particulate air" filters in planes filter the virus?
"There are different filters, but the classic HEPA filters are very good at cleaning the air. I doubt that it creates air conditions like that in operating theatres, but that's not the point. Filters of course have their restrictions when viruses are only a few hundred nanometres in size, but what's important is that droplets are filtered out. And that's what happens. So air travel has an advantage here over bus and train travel."
If the air from HEPA filters in planes is so clean does it then make sense to turn on the ventilation?
"It is very clean, but also very dry air. This is bad for mucous membranes, which in turn promote infection."
What else should I be aware of on board? Should I avoid drinks and food provided on-board and bring my own food?
"No. I know of no study that shows this has an impact."
What about using the WC? Does it make sense to avoid it to reduce contact with other people?
"No, it doesn't make sense. If you need to go, then go. But wash your hands afterwards."
Would you recommend washing hands whether or not you use the on-board WC?
"Yes. Washing hands is our most effective measure against the virus."
Some passengers worry about there being no soap on the plane. What do you do then?
"I don't think that's likely. If you're worried, then take a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you. They fit into your carry-on. But I'm not too keen on having to do this. It would be better to just ask the crew if there's any soap left."
When does quarantine make sense?
We have received inquiries on whether it makes sense to self-quarantine after a return flight when there have been more corona cases at the destination than at home. What do you think?
"Self-quarantine is necessary only if you return from a country or region that the Robert Koch Institute has officially designated as a high-risk area. Otherwise it's unnecessary. You should follow official recommendations here."
Protecting yourself from coronavirus when travelling
What does Dr. Egert recommend to protect yourself against the virus on board or at airports?
- Keep your distance from passengers showing symptoms of colds (cough, sniffles)
- Pay attention to hand hygiene (regular and thorough hand-washing)
- Drink plenty of water (especially due to the dry air in planes)
- Try to be relaxed when travelling because stress weakens the immune system
Do you want more details? Dr. Egert's new book about germs "Ein Keim kommt selten allein" (A germ seldom comes alone) has a complete chapter on germs and travel in which he also addresses the topic of flying.
Image source: Article image of Dr. Markus Egert by Britt Schilling