For months, airlines have been talking up the safety of air travel, stating that the breathable air in airplane cabins is as clean as a hospital operating room. Whether that characterization is true or not continues to be debated, but more than a million Americans are flying every day. Many people, particularly those with disabilities and older travelers, remain hesitant to get on a flight even after being vaccinated.

After 7 months of quarantine, I took my first flight at the end of October. I wasn’t vaccinated at the time, and took about 15 domestic flights before receiving my first dose of the Modern vaccine. Once I became fully vaccinated, I took a trip abroad — to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — and had a wonderful time. In total, I have taken more than 20 flights during the pandemic — all with my power wheelchair and as a person who requires assistance to the airplane seat. If you are considering travel during the pandemic, I hope that my experiences can be instructive and prepare you for what to expect.

Airline Face Mask Requirements

Airlines began requiring passengers to wear face masks last summer, and have since taken steps to ban passengers who refuse to comply. Mask mandates have been further strengthened by President Joe Biden’s executive order, which makes mask usage obligatory for interstate travelers, including on airplanes, trains, buses and ferries. Even though fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear a face mask in most public settings, travelers are still expected to wear them up in the air.

John wearing a face mask wile seated on an airplane seat.

With the federal mask mandate, I expect compliance to increase now that civil penalties for noncompliance are in effect.

Although face masks are obligatory (except for people with certain disabilities and young children), some passengers do remove them during flight to eat or drink, or to “take a break” (as I overheard one man say). Your own face mask will offer you some degree of protection from others, and there is convincing evidence that “doubling up” with a second mask is a good idea.

Wheelchair and Boarding Assistance

I am a triple amputee and must leave my wheelchair at the aircraft door. From there, I have to be transferred into an aisle chair and assisted onto the plane (and my seat) by at least two assistance staff members. During the pandemic, this is the part of the air travel journey that has caused me the most stress. Coming into close physical contact with others during boarding and deplaning is concerning, but I have approached it with caution each time.

Several unoccupied wheelchairs at Salt Lake City Airport.

First, I told myself that I would refuse assistance if a team member presented with coronavirus symptoms. Over the course of more than 20 flights, none have, suggesting to me that airlines and their sub-contractors are keeping a close eye on their employees’ health status. Second, I resolved to reduce physical contact whenever possible — transferring under my own power, buckling and un-buckling straps, etc. Finally, once I had made it to my seat, I thoroughly sanitized my hands. While these steps may not be 100% effective, I do believe they reduced the risk of infection and gave me some peace of mind.

Airplane Cleanliness & Sanitization

Carriers have updated their aircraft cleaning procedures in response to the pandemic, adopting new technologies such as electrostatic spraying.

Although I had hoped airplanes would be spotless, they seemed just as dirty as ever. Throughout the pandemic, I have used Clorox disinfecting wipes (Amazon has a great deal) to clean my seat and the surrounding area, including the tray table, window and air vents. After cleaning, the wipes were filthy, suggesting that no deep cleaning of the airplanes had occurred in quite some time. That said, if the planes had been given the electrostatic spray treatment that the airlines tout, perhaps the surfaces were virus-free, which is obviously the most important priority.

Device spraying disinfectant into airport bathroom.

Electrostatic sprayers are being used in some airports as well. I encountered one such device in a bathroom at the Las Vegas Airport, treating the air with a cloud of disinfectant spray.

Passenger Loads on Airplanes

Social distancing is a priority for anyone who wants to protect themselves from the coronavirus, but that may not be possible on an airplane. Although Delta Air Lines kept its promise of blocking the middle seat through April, that policy has ended and airplanes are now being filled to capacity on all carriers. If you flight has open seats, count it a blessing!

The majority of my travel during the pandemic has been with American Airlines, and most of those flights have been packed. I’ve been fortunate to fly in first class most of the time, but once had to fly in economy on United Airlines. On that flight, I was blessed with an empty row, but other passengers were not so fortunate.

Before taking my first trip, I told myself that I would not fly seated next to a passenger who appeared to be sick. Prior to travel, passengers must certify that they have not exhibited symptoms or tested positive for the coronavirus within 14 days. Over the course of my flights, I have only heard a handful of people coughing, none of whom were in close proximity to me.

One bright spot is that many international flights still have low passenger loads. My flight to and from Rio de Janeiro was less than 20% full in both directions, but Brazil is of course one of the world’s COVID-19 hotspots. As international borders reopen and more people are vaccinated, expect the number of passengers onboard to increase.

Beverage & Meal Service

Most airlines have suspended some or all of their traditional drink and snack service, but a limited offering does remain. On American Airlines and United Airlines, the two carriers I have flown during the pandemic, passengers were given a plastic bag containing a bottle of water, a snack and a sanitizing wipe upon boarding.

In first class, however, the carriers were much more generous. While traveling in the premium cabin from Charlotte to Las Vegas on American Airlines, I was served a sandwich, a soda pop and my favorite bourbon. United similarly served alcoholic beverages in first class during my November flight from Salt Lake City to San Francisco.

A full meal was served in business class on my flights to and from Rio de Janeiro, but on a single tray and with plastic cups (no glasses).

In economy class, beverage service was more limited. American offered water only, while United served soda (but no alcohol). Each carrier has a different offering, so you’ll want to research that before booking a ticket.

Disabled Air Travel During the Pandemic: My Point of View

Here’s the truth: Each time we leave the safety of our home, we risk exposure to a virus that could kill us. It’s a terrifying reality that we cannot ignore. Fortunately, the CDC has stated that fully vaccinated people can travel safely with limited risk.

My intent with this article is not to set your mind at ease, but to share my experience traveling with a disability in the current environment. In recent months, I have managed to safely travel on more than 20 flights without catching the coronavirus. That very well could have been luck, but I observed CDC guidelines and took reasonable precautions to curtail the risk of exposure whenever possible. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I feel much more comfortable traveling and look forward to many future trips. Whatever you decide, stay alert and be safe out there.

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