How I do air travel
How I Do Air Travel
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In April, I attended TED in Vancouver. Traveling to Vancouver was my third major international trip during the COVID pandemic. Both my work and the structure of my family life mean international travel is essential. Summer 2021, I went back to the US with my family. And in January 2022, I went to Egypt to speak at the World Youth Forum. I think Vancouver was the longest trip, although the trip back to the east coast was also lengthy. Sri Lanka is remote enough that there aren’t a lot of short trip options.
And at this point, I've developed my own best practices for air travel.
I try to minimize the number of planes I take. Fewer longer flights instead of more shorter flights. Based on what I can see, your major risk of Covid infection (unless you win the garbage lottery and are seated next to an infected person) is actually when boarding the plane and then when you’re getting off the plane. Those times are when everybody is all bunched up and breathing each other's air. It’s also when the plane isn't on and running yet, so their air filtration system is also not functioning. According to anecdotal evidence from people who have brought their air quality monitors on board, once the plane has taken off, the air is usually quite good.
It makes sense - they've got a lot of air exchange, and they've got high quality HEPA filters. So the air in a plane that's at altitude is pretty safe. When you’re crowded into the aisles trying to get on and off, that's a risk point. So if you can take more direct flights, fewer connecting flights, you can minimize the number of times you go through that.
I've tried different things like trying to be the first one on the plane or trying to be the last one on the plane. Being the first one on the plane doesn't really help because you're seated and people are still bunching up in the aisle next to you. Being the last one on the plane probably would help but it's hard to time that effectively. I myself always end up getting too nervous and then being towards the last instead of the actual last. That's just as bunched up as any other time you're on the plane. And I haven't found a really good way to minimize the boarding risk besides wearing a high quality mask mask.
Once I’m seated,, I turn on the air blower and direct it right at my face. That means I'm getting a constant flow of clean filtered air from the airplane system. It should also help create an air pressure differential to keep pushing the ambient air away from me. The idea is that I've got the fresh air to breathe constantly and be that the fresh air is moving. The other air doesn't really get to me because it's being pushed away by the fast moving fresh air. This does mean I can get very cold on the plane. I have to bring a sweater and a blanket - I have to bundle up more than I used to. But that seems like a decent trade off to me. Sometimes I've had my seatmate complain about being too cold. When that happens I try to move the nozzle so the air is only hitting me and not them.
I pre-order one of the meals for special diets. I'm particularly fond of the Asian vegetarian meal myself because it's almost always some kind of curry, and I like curry. The special meal means that I get my meal either before everyone else, or after. Either way, I'm taking my mask off to eat at a time when other people are not eating so they are still in their masks. We're not all unmasked at the same time. I also try to minimize how much I snack and how much water I drink. I admit that the water thing is tricky. It's so dry on airplanes - there may be health considerations to balance there between concerns about dehydration vs the risk of COVID from unmasking to drink your water. That's a decision you have to make yourself. I do not dehydrate particularly easily and I don't like airplane bathrooms. So not drinking much water is no real hardship for me.
I've trained myself to get comfortable asking people if they could please put a mask on. I ask nicely and then I hope it works. The worst that happens is they don't, or they put it on for a brief minute and then remove it. At that point, I should notify the flight attendant but I don't consistently have the moxie to do that. An airplane really seems like the safest possible situation to ask somebody to put their mask on or put their mask on properly. There are flight attendants there to back you up. If the other person goes nuts and starts yelling they'll get taken off the plane. It's not like some other public places where they could attack you - that's less likely on an airplane when you've got authority figures around.
When I'm in the airport, I avoid crowds and keep to myself. If I need to eat something because I haven't eaten on the plane, I get it at the food court and then I carry it somewhere with less people to eat. If you have access to a lounge, they can be good for finding a more isolated space.
Once I realized that masks were going to be a major part of my family's life for the foreseeable future, I ordered a lot of different kinds of high quality masks to try. N95, KN95, other non-woven masks made of polypropylene. Every member of my family found the one that was most comfortable for them. I think the main reason people take their masks off is the mask doesn't feel good on their face. Comfort for me involves using an adapter so the mask goes around behind my head instead of over my ears, because my ears get sore very easily. So I need the adapter.
Different brands of mask have subtly different fits. For example, identical looking black KN95 masks from different brands will actually be slightly larger or smaller or differently shaped. You need to keep sort of shopping around until you find the one that feels just right. Then buy a bunch of those so that you can keep wearing them. I've got a black KN95 that I use for regular life, with the adapter for behind my head. I also have American made N95 masks that you actually stick to your face with skin safe adhesive. So no straps at all. I like that for flights of five to six hours because I know I'm not going to eat anyway. I can just seal myself into it, for the whole flight. After 6-7 hours it gets less sticky because I've been wearing it for so long so for longer flights you’d need a second mask. It's easier to sleep in it because there's nothing going around your head
Some people like the cup style N95s that have the dome on your face and then the two straps behind your head. My mom uses those when she works with her physical therapist. The point is that everyone likes different shapes and there's a decent number of high quality masks that come in different sizes and fits. If you don’t like the first one you tried, and you can afford it, you should keep trying different ones to come up with the mask that really works for you. The best mask for you is the one you’ll consistently wear. No matter how good it is, if you avoid putting it on, it can’t protect you.
Air travel is kind of frightening. But it’s far from the riskiest thing you can do in ordinary life. If you need to fly, you should fly.