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Sharing An Airplane During Coronavirus Outbreak? Tips For Avoiding COVID-19

Pilots who use an airplane that others regularly fly need to take precautions. Here are a few tips, including some you probably hadn’t thought of.


Sharing An Airplane. Photo by Steve Collender/Shutterstock
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UPDATED: If you share a plane, as many of us do, it’s not important to safeguard yourself against the virus: It’s critical. That’s because airplanes are the perfect devices for successfully transferring disease-carrying particles from one person to the next. The more we’ve learned about the transmission of COVID-19, the more we know that this is true. 

While we earlier advised that it was critical to carefully clean a shared plane before you went flying, and again, afterward, our suggestions have changed. If you share a plane with other pilots, you should strongly consider not flying that plane, or at least not flying it soon after someone else has been in it. So pilots who rent planes, who partner in them, who fly with friends, and who have maintenance (or any other) personnel in their airplane, should carefully consider their risk and respond accordingly.

So, why is an airplane so risky in terms of transferring COVID-19? The virus, we have all hopefully learned, loves hard, shiny surfaces, and unlike most other viruses, it can live for a long time on hard surfaces. The biggest method of transmission of the coronavirus, experts believe, is by touching something that an infected person has already touched and then transferring the virus from your hands to your face.  That’s why there has been such an emphasis on hand washing. Luckily, the virus hates soap and water, so, yeah, as everybody’s been saying, wash your hands often and well. And if you need to share a plane, we’d recommend wearing an N95 mask if you already have one, and gloves, and practice health-care level caution. If that sounds like a lot to do, we agree. A safer bet would be not to fly if you have that option, and most of us do.  

Coronavirus can also be directly transmitted through the air, which makes flying with others particularly hazardous, and a mask can only help so much, mostly, health experts say, by keeping a sick person wearing the mask from infecting others as easily 

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The seating compartment of a light plane is hard to clean. It’s small, which contains the virus, and the air doesn’t circulate much, Stearmans excluded, and there are tons of hard, shiny surfaces, and pilots have their hands all over them throughout the flight. And with touchscreen avionics, and iPads and phones…the list could go on…there are even more touchable surfaces today than ever.

With those things in mind, here are a few basic tips. These by no means represents a comprehensive list of the actions you might need to take, depending of course on what you fly and who you fly with.  But it is a list of crucial areas.

  1. Don’t EVER use another pilot’s headset. Normally most of us don’t think its’ a big deal to share headsets. But when you think about it, they are the perfect storm for transferring the virus, with the mic muff right there next to your mouth when its just been literally in many cases touching another pilot’s lips. You should even safeguard your own headset, carefully wiping it down before and after each flight.
  2. Wipe everything down with sanitizing wipes. And remember, the only kind that work are ones with at least 60 percent alcohol solution. Is it a perfect solution? Not any more than using wipes on a grocery store shopping cart, but it’s better than nothing. While you’re at it, be sure to get not only the flat surfaces but the knobs and buttons, the power controls, flap levers… you get the idea. And don’t forget the seat belts, buckles, adjustment mechanisms, seat recline levers…anything people have touched and are likely to touch again. It’s a long list, but you’ve got to do it.
  3. Know your flying partners! If you’re flying with family and someone is, unbeknownst to you, a carrier of the virus, well, you were very likely going to get it anyways. When it comes to flying with friends, one could make the argument that now is a bad time to do that. In the end it’s your call, but remember, it might not be you taking your chances of catching the bug from someone else but of you unwittingly giving it to them.
  4. If you’re doing a job that requires you to fly with other people, what can we say? Do all of the above sanitizing procedures and keep as safe a distance as possible from new folks, and remember to be extra vigilant when it comes to cleaning the plane, both in front and in back.

A good tip from a pro pilot: “Before you fly, chair fly a trip around the pattern, with the alcohol wipe in your hand. You’ll invariably find something you’ll touch in the course of a flight that a “wipe everything” approach may miss. Two things I noticed that I missed for several flights were the release handle for the desktop and the iPad mount release/rotate handle.” 

Gloves? If you wear them, it’s smart to change them regularly and dispose of them safely. Masks? The CDC had previously recommended them only for health care workers and those who have the disease, but now they’re recommending them for everyone. In a small plane? It’s a no brainer. Wear a mask. 

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This pandemic has already been the most disruptive event in the lives of most people who weren’t yet born when World War II was raging, and the bad news it’s only getting started here in the United States. There’s no telling what will happen next week, never mind next month. All we can do is be as safe as we can while living our normal lives, at least as normal as possible under the circumstances. The same is true for flying. Stay healthy and stay safe!

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