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Eating on an Airplane Is Still Risky. Here’s How to Do It.

Studies show COVID transmission on a plane is highest during maskless mealtimes, but you don’t need to starve to stay safe

Two men are eating a tray of airplane food on side-by-side tray tables. Getty Images

Last April, as I boarded a plane at the very start of the pandemic to return to my family in California, I used about 14 sanitizing wet wipes to rub down every square inch of my seat, the windows, the ceiling. I watched with a mix of horror and bewildered end-times amusement from behind my double-layered masks as every single passenger around me did the same. Its bizarreness was only trumped by the feeling that I’d probably travel like that for the rest of my life.

Yesterday, 18 months after that first pandemic takeoff, I sat on an early morning flight and pulled down my mask with abandon to eat the snack I’d just been handed. I looked around me to see that every other passenger also had their masks resting below their chins, chomping down on the terrible nut and seed bars distributed by the flight crew. I hadn’t even considered packing a wet wipe.

It’s possible we’ve all gotten a little too comfortable. As the Wall Street Journal notes, a recent medical study by a group at the University of Greenwich in London showed “a 59% higher risk of viral transmission during a one-hour meal service on a 12-hour trip compared with staying fully masked for the whole flight.” I’m no scientist, but that is a lot of risk to assume for the very limited upside of a (usually tragic) in-flight meal. Sure, we know a lot more about COVID-19 than we did all those months ago when getting on a plane felt like a possible death sentence, and highly effective vaccines have given us a tremendous level of protection even if we do get sick. But still, taking off masks in the extremely cramped confines of a plane — even with the constant flow of fresh and filtered air — presents serious risk, something I was clearly not thinking about when I risked it all for one of the driest snack bars on earth.

Early in the pandemic, with a mind for keeping masks on faces, airlines pulled back on — or completely halted — food service. But now, airline food is definitely back on the tray table. And while it’s true that planes have excellent air filtration systems — we were told by a very chipper flight attendant at the beginning of my recent flight that the air in our plane was completely refreshed every three minutes — you really, really should have a mask on for as much of your flight as possible.

Of course, the answer isn’t just “don’t eat for 12 hours.” The main issue, as researchers in the study pointed out, and as should be common sense at this point in the pandemic, arose mostly from so many passengers taking off their masks simultaneously. The researchers’ advice for airlines: Pace meal delivery times, such that alternating groups of passengers eat, while others remain masked. But airlines haven’t been particularly agile in responding to public health guidance, especially if it has the potential to piss off some of the huge fragile babies — sometimes known as adults — who buy airline tickets. So don’t count on an updated meal delivery protocol on planes any time soon.

Here’s my suggestion for all of us: Just wait a few extra minutes to eat your snacks or sip your coffee or pull back the steamy plastic wrap on that sad tray of mashed potatoes and boeuf bourguignon. It’s not ideal if everyone around you has their mask off, but keeping yours on while others eat will still provide an extra layer of protection. And just imagine how much better that airplane food will taste 20 minutes after everyone else has eaten, knowing you’re the one of the only ones enjoying the fresh airplane air — with your mask off.

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