With masking on flights no longer mandatory, what should travellers consider to minimise their risk of infections and continue to stay safe?

In the coming weeks until the end of November 2022, about 95 million airplane seats are expected to be filled by eager and excited travellers around the world.

However, the changing regulations and requirements about donning face masks during flights have raised some concerns among frequent flyers. Many airlines including Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Malaysia Airlines (MAS) have removed their mandatory masking requirements for passengers, with the exception of flights journeying to or from countries that still mandate mask-wearing on planes.

Without mandatory masking requirements, is it safe to travel abroad, or are travellers on airplanes at increased risk for contracting viruses? Here are some considerations worth taking note of if you are planning an international trip in the near future:

  1. Are your vaccinations up to date?

If you’re up to date with your COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots, your chances of being infected are greatly reduced. Any approved vaccine is a good vaccine when it comes to COVID-19, as they provide high immune responses with effectiveness against known variants.

However, as our antibodies lower with time and new variants of concern emerge, booster shots are recommended if you would like to continue being protected. The higher the population’s immunity, the less chance of the virus spreading and the more protected you are, even when travelling.

  1. Is it safe to fly without a mask on?

Passengers in an airplane may be at greater risk for catching and transmitting the virus, as they come into close contact with one another for a prolonged duration, especially in the aisles and other common areas during embarking and disembarking.

On the other hand, just because 10 passengers from the same flight tested positive within days of travel, does not mean they all caught the same virus from the same place as incubation times can vary from person to person, and only genetic analysis of the virus can confirm its origin. Some studies did however conclude that there was indirect evidence of transmission or a high probability of transmission on aircraft.

Would we be safer if we put on face masks? Definitely. If you’re concerned about air on a plane containing less oxygen than the air we normally breathe in, the drop in oxygen will not affect your body’s oxygen levels even with your mask on. However, if you have a lung condition, speak to your healthcare professional before you plan your trip to check that you are fit enough to travel safely.

So, if you are concerned about infections, it would be wise to pack a travel-friendly COVID-19 kit that includes hand sanitisers and a few face masks in your handbag or carry-on luggage.

  1. Does flying pose an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19?

Airplanes are technically safer than many other environments. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) the air in passenger planes is refreshed 20-30 times an hour; 10 times more often than most office buildings. During this process which takes place every two to three minutes, cabin air is sucked out, passed through a special filter, and then mixed with 50% of fresh air before being pumped through the cabin again.

The filters used in passenger aircraft are High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters similar to those used in operating theatres in hospitals and industrial clean rooms, which effectively remove more than 99.9% of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The way the air travels around the cabin, pumped in through ceiling vents and sucked out at floor level, also helps to reduce the risk of airborne viruses spreading widely within the cabin.

Although there is a higher risk of catching an infection in any tightly-packed environment, there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that flying increases your risk of catching COVID-19.

  1. Does where you sit matter?

In short, yes. Some research indicates that passengers seated in the same row or two rows in front of a COVID-19-positive passenger were most vulnerable to transmission. Other hotspots included high-traffic areas such as around the toilets and aisle where people tend to gather or pass through, while long-haul flights have been shown to be riskier than shorter journeys.

In any case, if you have just returned from a trip abroad it would be wise to avoid visiting vulnerable family members or friends for a few days, or even up to a week, to avoid any possibility of COVID-19 infections. These include the elderly, those with cancer, diabetes, chronic heart/lung disease, and other illnesses that may put them at higher risk of severe infection.

On the bright side, for most healthy travellers under 50 who are up to date with their vaccinations and booster shots, there is very little personal risk when flying.


Photo by Dreamstime