(Bloomberg Opinion) — Just two weeks ago, the biggest fear frequent fliers faced was having their seatback punched by some jerk or, depending on your point of view, being filmed while punching some jerk’s seat.
Now, the Covid-19 coronavirus is spreading steadily around the globe, but the fear it engenders has already done at least three laps. Travelers suddenly face a much more disturbing set of questions than why airplanes bother to make seats that recline if you’re not ever supposed to recline them.
Just when you thought flying couldn’t get any more hellacious! Too-small seats are no longer just uncomfortable; they force you to be uncomfortably close to potentially coronavirus-infected fellow travelers. Seatback-punching is no longer just a bizarre outburst of airplane rage; it’s potentially a way to transfer germs from one row of seats to the next. Just the prospect of being cooped up in a flying tin can is enough to make that long-awaited vacation seem more terrifying than relaxing.
This poses a real problem for the travel sector, as my colleague Andrea Felsted has detailed, especially since March is a popular time to get away. Colleges and universities would usually be sending their students home for spring break. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere want to fly somewhere with sun (or snow). And spring is also a popular time for professional conferences.
Nonetheless, some companies, like Cargill, Nestle and L’Oreal, have already banned non-essential international travel for their employees for at least the next two weeks. Some schools have canceled study-abroad programs and advised students not to travel to China, even if it’s where they call home.
Maybe these are sensible precautions, or maybe they’re just symbolic gestures from leaders who want to be seen to be Doing Something. Other companies, like Coca-Cola and Heinz, have only asked employees to avoid countries experiencing major outbreaks. And the virus doesn’t seem to have slowed fashion industry professionals in Milan or Paris. Paris Fashion Week is continuing on schedule, with many industry workers having traveled directly to Paris from Milan — which is in Lombardy, the part of Italy that has thus far been the most affected.
So if you have a trip coming up, should you still go?
Over the past few days, a limitless supply of articles has tried to answer this question. The problem, though, is that so much about Covid-19 is still unknown. Thus the basic gist of most of this advice is to use common sense: Don’t go to a country experiencing a major outbreak, wash your hands often, don’t touch your face while you’re traveling, and use extra caution if you’re older or have a compromised immune system. (Older smokers may want to be especially careful, since Covid-19 affects the respiratory system.)
I know what the entire internet has to say on this topic because my husband and I have texted approximately all of these articles to each other over the last 48 hours. We are set to celebrate our anniversary with a trip to the French Riviera in a couple of weeks, and the sudden uptick in Covid-19 cases in Europe has sparked a discussion over whether we should cancel.
The U.S. government’s travel advice for Europe is rather blasé. Italy, for example, has been added to the list of countries where travelers should “exercise increased caution” — but its overall travel advisory level remains unchanged. The same is true of Spain, where hundreds of holiday-makers have been confined to a hotel in Tenerife, and France, where there have been a handful of cases and at least two deaths. As far as the government is concerned, terrorism and civil unrest are still bigger threats to U.S. travelers in these countries than the virus.
As for airplanes — those flying Petri dishes — the chances of catching an illness while confined in one are probably less than we fear. On the one hand, yes, you’re crammed into a confined space with a bunch of strangers, but it’s not that different from being in any other crowded, enclosed space, like a subway car or a movie theater. Plus, that recycled air is filtered through a HEPA filter, the International Air Transport Association notes.
Close proximity to sick passengers is the biggest risk factor: If you’re not sitting next to someone sick, you’re much less likely to get sick yourself. (Yes, you can use this column to justify the seat upgrade you’ve been longing for.) Frequent travelers swear by airborne-germ-limiting tactics like shutting off the overhead air vent or choosing a window seat.
But the bigger issue may be the globules of sickness lying in wait on oft-touched surfaces: the handle on the lavatory door, the latch on the tray table, the touchscreen on the seatback in front of you, even the in-flight magazine. The solution is simple: Touch them as little as possible and, if you do touch them, wash your hands with soap and water before you touch your face.
Everyone’s risk tolerance is different, as is everyone’s definition of “non-essential” travel. For me, the French Riviera sounds pretty darn essential. So unless things take a quick turn for the much worse, I think I’ll get on that airplane — armed with high-octane hand sanitizer and a resolution to leave the in-flight magazine untouched. After all, it’s not as if it’s a cruise ship.
To contact the author of this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at [email protected]
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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