Epidemiologist: Choose a nonstop flight if you must fly, but better to follow CDC advice and not travel

Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Is one airline safer than another to fly in the COVID-19 era?

We wondered, because Delta is the only airline at Harrisburg International Airport that blocks most middle seats on its flights (through March 30 as of now, although it has extended the practice several times); it only assigns a middle seat if, for example, three people in a family are traveling together.

All things being equal, an empty middle instead of a stranger immediately next to you — if you’re seated in a window seat, for example — should be better than nothing. But all things are rarely equal in the airline industry. Different airlines fly to different cities. What if you have to choose between a connecting flight on middle-seat-blocking Delta and a nonstop flight on other airlines — for example, a nonstop flight to Chicago on American or United, which fly there directly from HIA, or a connecting itinerary there on Delta, which doesn’t? A nonstop flight on a potentially full airplane, or two flights on less full airplanes — but an additional airport to pass through, additional visits to public restrooms and so forth?

“What travelers want to do is both minimize the duration and the intensity of their exposure,” said Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist and associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University. “So you want to do everything you can to minimize the amount of time that you have to spend on a plane and in an airport.”

Translation: choose the nonstop flight. A middle seat isn’t true six-foot social distance, she said (seats on most airlines about 18 inches wide). Furr-Holden agreed to answer the question at all only reluctantly, saying the better advice is to simply avoid nonessential travel, as the CDC and Pennsylvania health officials are advising.

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