As India emerges from a debilitating second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic and warily looks at a potential third one, travel is looking up. But it's largely domestic, and leisure travel that is gaining popularity in places that are easily accessible via a road trip. But that's likely to change soon, especially since the number of fully vaccinated people climbs. However, it brings with it the anxiety of being cooped up in a tin tube for a few hours. Not to mention of course the closed environment of airports.
At the best of times, choosing a seat on a plane is considered to be a matter of great strategy and analysis. As well as the subject of much debate. Factors such as easy access to exits and toilet, legroom and relative peace to catch a nap come into play. Now there seems to be much more at stake. Especially since it is now clear that the virus is aerosolized and airborne and not reliant on touched surfaces to spread.
There is plenty of information to indicate that plane travel is safe. "Since most planes are equipped with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters, it clears more than 99 per cent of microbes," says Ajay Awtaney, founder and editor of India-based aviation website LiveFromALounge.com. "This is probably as clean as a hospital and contamination is very low so I don't think people should worry too much," he says. Besides which there are clear guidelines on the sanitation procedures to be used by carriers, and many are using their sites to assure customers of the steps they are taking.
And yet, it does beg one question.
Which is the safest seat on a plane?
"It is an enclosed space in an air-conditioned environment with a fairly good filtration system so it does not really matter where you sit," says Dr Gautham Melur Sukumar, additional professor in the department of epidemiology at Bangalore's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS).
Awtaney has a more nuanced answer. "If people can afford it, then the front of the plane is the best place. This is not just about first or business class, but even the front section of the economy class since seats can be selected with extra payment. This way, entering and exiting is done earlier and contact is minimised. First and business class is probably safer because it is like a cocoon and much easier to be isolated," he says, adding that he personally prefers to be upfront and in a window seat.
What other safety precautions need to be taken?
Rathen than trying to figure the best place to sit, there is consensus that it is more important to be masked. "Whether it is a 3-hour flight or a longer 15-hour one, it is essential for everyone to be masked inside a place at all times. And not just any cloth mask but an N95," says Atwaney.
Dr Sukumar concurs and adds that double-layering is also helpful but draws the line at gloves and PPE. "Even the CDC has indicated that transmission is less through touch, so these are not really necessary. However, I cannot stress enough the need to wear a mask at all times. I have noticed on recent flights that people tend to remove them as soon as the flight takes off, but this behaviour is dangerous," he says.
What about eating on a plane?
"If it is possible, avoid eating on a plane altogether," says Dr Sukumar. He reasons that removing the mask for even 10-15 minutes to eat carries a high amount of risk. "Even though everyone is tested, there are still so many uncertainties," he says, and suggests eating in the airport where social distancing is possible.
Awtaney says not eating on a plane is a good idea but a difficult proposition on a long-haul flight or for people with certain conditions, and offers a practical solution. "Save your food till almost everyone else has eaten and masked up again to eat yours. Some clever manoeuvring might help," he says. Whether pandemic or not, Awtaney also stresses on a hand-hygiene regimen of sanitising before and after eating on a plane.
What else can be done?
"More than the flight, the airport presents a much higher risk," says Dr Sukumar, because of the larger number of people as well as the fact that it is closed space with air-conditioning. "So keeping the mask on as much as possible after entering the airport is imperative," he says.
Where to fly?
Now that there's some clarity on how to fly safely, here are some pointers on where to fly. It comes as great relief to passengers that travel bans are being modified and lifted; some accept travellers who are fully vaccinated, others want a negative RT PCR test and some mandate a two-week quarantine. There are plenty who insist on a combination of these as well. But the situation is so dynamic that it is best to refer to country immigration sites for the latest.
"As of now, Maldives will open from July 15. Countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Egypt, Mexico, Serbia, Russia and South Africa are accepting Indian travellers," says Loveleen Multani Arun of Bangalore-based Panache World, a boutique travel solutions company. "Many lists include Turkey, but there is a 14-day quarantine," she cautions. She also pointed out that Qatar has waived the 10-day quarantine for fully vaccinated Indian travellers from July 12.
Here are some of the countries you can visit:
Germany: Proof of double vaccination (only Covishield)
Switzerland: Proof of double vaccination (only Covishield)/negative RT-PCR test and mandatory quarantine for unvaccinated.
Egypt: Negative RT-PCR test plus rapid test.
Russia: Negative RT-PCR test.
Turkey: Negative RT-PCR test plus 14 day quarantine
Canada: Proof of double vaccination plus negative RT-PCR test at final point of departure.
Maldives (from July 15): Negative RT-PCR test; declaration on site 24 hours from departure; no mandatory isolation.
South Africa: No restrictions but very limited flights and ports of entry.
South Korea: Proof of double vaccination (Covishield)/quarantine if vaccinated with Covaxin.
Qatar (from July 12): Proof of double vaccination (Covishield).
Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bangalore with over 25 years of experience. She writes on a range of subjects and tweets @anitaraokashi.
Updated On: 2021-08-12T11:19:36+05:30