Should you travel on an airplane? Here's what one infectious diseases doctor has to say

Dr. Lynora Saxinger said evidence of airplane-based outbreaks has been “surprisingly light” but that isn’t a good enough reason for people to book a flight.

'We are not living in a no-risk world and travel can be made reasonable if you do things smart'

One infectious diseases expert says the fact that airplanes haven't been linked to significant transmission doesn't mean air travel should be taken lightly. (CBC)

If you're wondering whether you should hop on a plane, take a moment to consider how important it is to take the trip, says an Alberta infectious diseases doctor.

"There aren't any no-risk activities. Weigh why you're flying and what would happen if you didn't fly," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and an associate professor at the University of Alberta's faculty of medicine.

"If it looks like a compelling reason to do that, how comfortable should you be doing that?"

There is ample evidence of international travellers spreading COVID-19 from one country to another. "That's how it actually spread across the globe, mostly," she told Edmonton AM on Thursday. 

But evidence of airplane-based outbreaks has been "surprisingly light," she said.

"That actual number of plane-related outbreaks is surprisingly low considering how many millions have been infected and how many people travel across the world," Saxinger said.

"Although people think you're sitting in a can of air with a bunch of other individuals and it's a respiratory illness and therefore planes must be terrible, they're not as terrible as people think."

Physical distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been a key message from health authorities across the country during the pandemic but that has become harder to achieve on an airplane after Canada's two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, stopped blocking the middle seat on flights. 

Canada's public health officer has expressed reservations about the practice, though it is permitted under federal transportation rules.

"We really feel it is important to avoid close physical contact as much as possible. And if not, wear the medical mask," Dr. Theresa Tam said. 

Saxinger echoed the sentiments, saying air quality can be a problem when sitting close to a stranger on an airplane. 

"If you're sitting right next to someone, the air exchanges [on a plane] aren't really going to help you that much because you're sharing the air space so closely," she said. 

Masks or face coverings have been mandatory on flights in Canada since April 20. 

Saxinger said if people are planning to board an airplane, she recommends good hand hygiene, a mask and eye protection.

Saxinger said air travel is doable but that "people need to look at the reasons why.

"We are not living in a no-risk world and travel can be made reasonable if you do things smartly."


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