Countries opening borders. COVID-19 safety considerations on commercial airlines

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the September 2020 issue.
One of four statues of mothers around the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia in Skopje, North Macedonia. In the background, on a 15-meter-tall platform, is a 13-meter-tall bronze statue of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 534th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine.

We are continuing to collect subscribers’ responses to the question ‘Should ITN cover US travel too?’ This publication has had a longstanding policy of only covering destinations outside of the US and its territories, but these are unusual times, and in my column last month a reader suggested, “… it might be time to reconsider it, at least in a small way.”

That was John Reeves of Jackson, California, and he gave several reasons for making the change. Let us know how YOU feel about this. We’re soliciting opinions for one more month to give everyone a chance to respond.

Email or write to Should ITN Cover US Travel Too?, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Include the full mailing or billing address for your subscription. I will announce the results, and we’ll print some of the comments received, in a future issue.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in different areas of the world, some countries are opening their borders. Unfortunately, international travel for Americans continues to suffer setbacks.

On July 21, the day that casual travel across US land borders into and out of Canada and Mexico was scheduled to restart, those countries announced that their borders with the US would continue to be closed to nonessential travel until at least Aug. 21. However, air travel to both countries, at least to some locations, is still possible for American citizens.

That’s no longer the case for the Bahamas, which had started allowing flights from the US on July 1. The country decided on July 20 to again deny flights from the US due to the increasing numbers of cases of COVID-19 in the States.

Meanwhile, a “no sail order” from the Centers for Disease Control, banning cruise ships from entering or leaving US ports, was set to expire on July 24, but on July 16 that order was extended to Sept. 30.

In addition, the European Union is maintaining its ban on US travelers (except those who can provide proof of residency in one of the countries the EU considers “safe” in regard to COVID-19), but that doesn’t mean that travel to Europe is impossible. Albania, Belarus, North Macedonia and Serbia, which are not EU countries despite being on the European continent, do admit US travelers. The difficulty is finding a flight via another country’s airport that allows Americans to transit through (or making sure you do not have to deplane en route).

Some international airports in the EU are allowing US citizens to transit through so long as they do not have to go through Customs. That is, they must stay in the transit “airside” area, their baggage must have been checked through to their final destination from the start, and they must already have their boarding passes for the next flight.

Travelers should check with their airline and the transit airport to make sure they will be able to complete a transfer to another flight and to find out what restrictions (health declaration, temperature checks, etc.) the transiting airport is imposing on travelers.

By the way, American travelers are currently accepted in the UK and Ireland, but they must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

On the bright side, commercial flights still operate within North America, and there are scores of other countries that, theoretically, travelers can hop on a plane to visit. The next consideration for some travelers is how COVID-safe it is to travel by plane.

One of the ways COVID-19 can be transmitted is via contaminated surfaces. If an infected person touches a tray table, someone else touching that tray table soon after can pick up the virus, which can become a problem if they touch their eyes, nose or mouth — though this particular virus, which most strongly affects people’s respiratory systems, is thought to be mainly transmitted through the air.

Assuming that surfaces we come in contact with can be disinfected, reducing that route of infection, ITN staff was curious about the air in commercial airplane cabins.

According to Boeing and Airbus, most modern, large commercial airliners completely replace cabin air with fresh air every two to three minutes, or 20 to 30 times per hour. As that is going on, 50% of the cabin air is recirculated through a HEPA filter (a “high efficiency particulate air” filter, similar to those used in hospital operating rooms) that can filter out 99.97% of all viruses. The other half is flushed out through valves.

HEPA filters can capture particles sized between 0.003 and 10 microns. The COVID-19 virus ranges in diameter from about 0.06 to 1.4 microns, which is within the working range of HEPA filters.

As for how air is circulated within passenger cabins, in both Boeing and Airbus planes, air is piped in through numerous vents in the ceiling, situated above and below the luggage bins on both sides of the cabin, as well as through the overhead vents that can be controlled by passengers. It is piped out through multiple intake ducts in the floor throughout the cabin.

Of course, air will move laterally as well, but at least with the system set up as it is, much of the air flow is straight down and out, meaning that, in any part of the plane, much of the air is shared only between passengers sitting near each other.

There have been reports that exposure to greater amounts of the virus may lead to worse health outcomes, so anything that can be done to decrease exposure — or prevent it — is helpful. Aside from being in an outdoor setting, being in any area with proper ventilation can help lessen concentrated exposure, as can having everyone wear face masks.

That said, a plane is an enclosed space, and people infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, so there is no way to know for sure whether any passengers are infected, let alone the person nearest you.

Further, according to a study done by VIDEC, a travel and hospitality consulting firm, North American airlines may not be doing everything they can to mitigate the spread of disease.

Using safety guidelines provided by international health organizations as a blueprint, VIDEC has been checking on the health practices of every major airline in the world and many smaller regional ones, seeing whether preboarding temperature checks of passengers are being done, whether or not face masks and use of hand sanitizer are required before boarding, whether middle seats are kept empty, how in-flight food service is being handled and whether passengers are required to fill out health declaration forms.

As of press time, American Airlines, for example, was following most of the protocols, including providing masks and sanitizer to passengers who did not bring their own, failing only to require that each passenger fill out a health declaration form before boarding.

Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, was not doing temperature checks or asking for health declarations and, as of press time, had not altered its food service practices.

Among new food-serving policies that airlines have adopted, many no longer serve alcohol and no longer provide meal service on shorter flights, even in business class.

VIDEC has not limited their survey to airlines. They have also created tables listing the sanitary practices in airports, hotels, cruise ships, museums, parks and even whole countries. To view any of their lists, visit

Most airports in the US now require anyone entering to wear a face mask, and all US airlines now require passengers to wear face masks and to keep them on throughout the flight except when eating or drinking. Cloth masks should be replaced every four hours.

In terminals, travelers should try to keep 6 feet away from strangers. On the plane, walking around the cabin should be limited. And hand sanitizer can help disinfect hands, armrests, tray tables and other objects.

In a sign of the times, the TSA is now allowing passengers to each pack a 12-ounce container of hand sanitizer in their carryons, in addition to their usual quart-size bag of liquids and gels in containers each capable of holding 3.4 ounces or less.

Wherever you choose to be, stay safe out there!

CORRECTION to note —

ITN reported that, to increase tourism, the Japan National Tourism Organization was planning to partially pay the travel expenses of foreigners traveling in Japan (July ’20, pg. 37).

After receiving an email from subscriber Cindy Hauke of Eugene, Oregon (thank you, Cindy), ITN learned that while foreigners are not excluded from the Go to Travel campaign, which would cover a portion of only domestic travel expenses until mid-March 2021 (or until funds run out), several barriers would limit their participation.

Information and the application are in Japanese, and travelers must make their bookings through a campaign-registered travel agency or an accommodation-booking website, not to mention, of course, that Japan is currently denying entry to foreign nationals who have stayed in the US or Canada (among many other countries) within 14 days prior to filling out the application for landing.

These are difficult times for many businesses — those in the travel field getting hit especially hard — so the response to the “Travel Resource Challenge” extended by Evenyl Roemmich of Vista, California, exhorting her fellow ITN subscribers to help keep this magazine publishing during the worldwide travel lockdown has been truly heartwarming (July ’20, pg. 26).

ITN’s publisher, Helen Noble, and the ITN staff, myself included, all have been deeply touched by your support and the accompanying words of inspiration and encouragement.

This “we try harder” newsprint magazine has always provided a forum for travelers to help each other. For our subscribers to now help us in turn has left us overwhelmed.

Thank you.