As planes start to fill up, is this something fliers should consider as well?
“Goggles and face shields are primarily useful for preventing infection through the eyes. The eyes may be a route for infection because they are anatomically connected with the nose through the tear duct,” said Dr. William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University. “I would say goggles and face shields are possibly useful but are not necessary based on what we know right now. Of course, the more crowded the plane the more potentially useful they are.”
In July, Qatar Airways became the first airline to require that passengers wear a face shield in addition to a face covering, something that the airline provides to passengers if they don't have one.
When it comes to face shields, there are two main issues at play. There is the issue of comfort and wearability, and the issue of added protection. For travelers who are hoping to use a face shield on a plane instead of a face mask, perhaps because they feel like wearing a face mask for a prolonged period of time is or would be uncomfortable, they are out of luck. None of the major U.S. airlines currently considers a face shield as an adequate replacement to satisfy the face mask requirement.
But for those who are more concerned about simply being protected to the greatest extent possible, goggles or face shields can offer a literal added layer protection on top of a face mask.
According to Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert, for the face shields to be effective they should offer maximum coverage.
“There are some that are simply a sheet of plastic that comes down in front of your face—that doesn’t offer a whole lot of protection,” said Schaffner. “But then there are those that are a little more elaborate and thoughtfully put together that have a nice tight seal on your forehead, go down below your chin and around your cheeks.”
The “more elaborate” face shields described by Dr. Schaffner are the ones that potentially offer more protection to the wearer.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that “having eye protection is an important part of trying to protect yourself from getting infected.”
That eye protection could also come in the form of goggles. Those who are considering the benefits of additional eye protection should be aware that regular glasses “offer almost no protection at all,” according to Dr. Schaffner.
Schaffner said that in order for goggles to properly protect the wearer’s eyes, they should be “rather large, rather lightweight plastic goggles that come over your glasses—if you wear glasses—[with] flanges that go around the side so they protect the sides of your eyes also.”
The issue of goggles and face shields has come into the spotlight just as airplanes are starting to fill up more. This past Sunday, almost 800,000 fliers took to the skies in the United States—nearly 10 times as many as in mid-April when the number of passengers heading through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints hit rock bottom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As the number of fliers grows, planes are getting more crowded. U.S. domestic flight load factors (or the percentage of passengers in seats) dropped to an average of just 10 percent in mid-April, and then climbed up to 60 percent in June, according to the trade group Airlines for America. In July, they came back down to around 45 percent, due in part to measures airlines are taking to try to offer passengers as much space as they can, while still ensuring that flights remain profitable.
Of the major U.S. airlines, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest are the only ones that are blocking out the middle seats for now. United does not block middle seats, but the airline told AFAR that it is taking steps to limit the overall number of people onboard and to give fliers space by, for instance, switching to larger planes when possible.
“Since May, we’ve been contacting customers via email and through the United app [to let them know] if their flight is expected to be more than 70 percent full and giving them options to switch to different, less full flights for no additional fees,” said United spokesperson Charles Hobart.
But even if the middle seats are left unfilled and even if the airlines work with customers to allow for some added space when available, that often still doesn’t leave the recommended six feet of space between passengers to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.
“Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in its COVID-19 travel guidelines. “However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.”
Therein lies the challenge—it’s simply hard to properly socially distance on a plane.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, airlines and airports have made a slew of adjustments in the way they clean and operate their flights in an effort to help curb transmission for staff, crew, and passengers.
“Right now, the airlines and the airports have pretty well adapted to the threat of coronavirus and modified their operations,” said Dr. Adalja. “I do think the risk is lower now than it was much earlier in the sense that there are measures that have been put in place. But as more people travel, that’s going to then increase the risk as well.”
For their part, airlines have rolled out numerous enhanced health and safety initiatives, including:
American: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff; asking customers to verify that they are symptom-free before traveling; disinfecting aircraft.
Delta: mandatory masks; automatically blocking out the seat next to travelers after they make a reservation (policy currently in place through September 30); reducing the number of passengers in each aircraft; increased aircraft cleaning measures.
JetBlue: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff; blocking middle seats (policy currently in place through September 8); providing sanitation kits to customers with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes; increased aircraft cleaning.
Southwest: mandatory masks; enhanced cleaning efforts at airports and onboard aircraft; blocking middle seats (policy currently in place through October 31); providing sanitizing wipes to customers (upon request).
United: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff and crew; limiting the number of passengers onboard; providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes; enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
Not only do all the major U.S. airlines have mandatory mask-wearing requirements in place both for crew and passengers, but in June, American, Delta, United, JetBlue, Southwest, Alaska, and Hawaiian also all agreed to adopt stricter mask enforcement policies, including the option of suspending flying privileges for those who don’t comply.
In July, Delta updated its mask policy to include that mask-less fliers will need to undergo a health screening prior to flying or “reconsider travel.” A few days later, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview on The Today Show that the airline had already put 100 people on its no-fly list for refusing to wear a mask onboard.
Delta’s latest mask policy also specifies that any mask with an exhaust valve will not be considered an acceptable face mask.
JetBlue has a new mask policy that goes into effect on August 10 that also prohibits masks with vents or exhalation valves. The airline’s new mask policy also states that “customers with conditions that prevent them from wearing a face covering should postpone travel until this temporary requirement is no longer in place.”
Starting on August 7, all Alaska Airlines passengers age 2 and older will be required to wear a mask over their nose and mouth while at the airport and on the flight with absolutely no exceptions, the airline said in a statement. Those who are unwilling or unable to wear a mask for any reason will not be permitted to travel. If they refuse to wear a mask after boarding their flight, they will be suspended from future travel.
“First and foremost, masks remain the main option for protection for yourself and others,” said Dr. Miller.
added Miller, “I definitely would still recommend the cleaning of the seat and tray table.”
Indeed, even as airlines continue to roll out new and ever more sophisticated aircraft cleaning, sanitation and health protocols (including electrostatic disinfectant spraying and UV technologies), advice from infectious disease experts such as Miller include the enduring reminder to wash our hands frequently and to sanitize high-touch surfaces in addition to wearing masks.
For those who feel like an added layer of protection in addition to a face mask can’t hurt, here are some of the goggles and face shields we are eyeing ourselves.