A plane being disinfected
A plane being disinfected Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: As fears over air travel peak in the wake of the global outbreak of coronavirus, doctors in Dubai have advised residents not to panic, but be practical while flying.

While avoidance of non-essential travel is advised in general, doctors said if travel is a must, necessary preventive measures should be taken.

Dr Amr El Naggar, Specialist Emergency Medicine, Medcare Hospital Dubai, said, “If your destination is thousands of miles from endemic areas, there isn’t any current reason to skip a trip to a country where few or no cases of the coronavirus have been reported. But you have to evaluate your trip day to day.”

Dr Amr El Naggar
Dr Amr El Naggar, Specialist Emergency Medicine, Medcare Hospital Dubai Image Credit: Supplied

The UAE Ministry of Health on Thursday notified that there are 10 countries on the watch-out list. They include China, Hong Kong, Italy, Iran, Japan, Germany, Singapore, France, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Doctors said the public should be cognizant that planes, like any other enclosed space with a concentration of people, present a certain level of risk for spreading any kind of contagious infection, so preventive tips go a long way in keeping them safe.

What is the probability of catching a flu on the plane?

Coronavirus or no coronavirus, Dr Titty Mary Thomas, Specialist Family Medicine – Aster Clinic, Tecom, said, “Planes are considered a hot spot for picking up illnesses like the flu and other viruses. Planes involve very close contact with large groups of people, and the restrictive environment severely limits your ability to move. Nothing prevents sick people from flying, which makes it very likely that others will be infected by contagious illnesses brought onto a flight, particularly those caused by viruses. Coming in close contact with unfamiliar groups of people always increases the risk of illness.”

Dr Titty Thomas

Flu exposure

The doctors said flying involves airports, planes, public restrooms and sometimes public ground transportation — and all of these environments present ample opportunities for flu exposure. “With at least 200 virus strains lurking around, some are so virulent that they can still be infectious for as long as 18 hours outside the human body. Flu viruses have a lifespan of up to eight hours after they’ve been released from their host,” noted Dr Thomas.

Airlines, however, follow stringent protocols for cleaning the plane after every flight, including deep cleaning with wiping down of surfaces on long-haul flights. As Covid-19 spreads globally, many airlines have stepped up their efforts and are going beyond the normal cleaning and disinfection protocols to protect passenger health.

What is the five row thumb rule on an aircraft?

Generally speaking, Dr Jacques Malan, Consultant Emergency Physician and Head of Department at the Mediclinic City Hospital in Dubai, said, “It is believed that those within the radius of 6ft from an infected person is at higher risk of catching that infection.”

In the context of a plane, World Health Organisation guidelines recommend that airlines collect passenger details of those seated in the same row, two rows in front and two rows behind a traveller who is feeling unwell, just in case they need to be contacted at a later date for screening. According to some studies, those in an aisle seat are also at greater risk than someone sitting at a window seat of contracting an infection from an ill passenger walking past.

But as Dr El Naggar said, “If somebody near you is unwell on the aircraft, you can bring that to the attention of the crew, because there are established procedures they can take to separate that person and minimise risk to others.”

How does coronavirus spread on the plane?

As the doctors explained, viruses are either airborne or spread through droplets. While there is no concrete evidence yet to establish the exact mode of transmission for Covid-19, it is believed to spread through droplets.

Dr Thomas said, “We believe coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, physical contact with saliva or diarrhea followed by oral consumption of viral material, or perhaps even aerosols. The situation is complicated by the fact that travelers can show no or few symptoms, board a plane, and be almost anywhere in the world within hours. When stuck on a plane for an extended time, it’s not as simple as to move to the other side as seat assignments are fixed. Flyers can be stuck sitting next to an ill passenger for an entire flight.”

What are the precautions one can take while travelling and do they work?

The answer is yes. To begin with, Dr Malan recommends the use of common sense.

“It is recommended that you keep essential travel to a minimal and avoid countries that are reporting high active or local transmission of covid-19. Get updates from the situational reports on the WHO website. Basically, you need to be sensible and use common sense. And no matter where you are, maintaining hand hygiene is most important.”

Dr Thomas added: “With airplanes, it is particularly good to try to clean your area as much as possible. It’s wise to travel with antibacterial wipes and antibacterial gel, so that you can clean your area, making sure that the antibacterial gel has at least a 60 per cent alcohol rate, if possible. And make sure that you clean off your tray table, and avoid putting things in the backseat pocket.”

NAT 191210 Kannur-Abu Dhabi maiden flight1-1575982293954
A flight in progress. For illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Supplied

She said, “Make sure that your seat is well-ventilated by using the air vent that’s right above your seat. A lot of studies recommend that if you turn on the air vent and position it so that it forms a force field, effectively, in front of your head, that you can actually blow a lot of the viruses and bacteria away. It’s not going to be 100 per cent proof, but it’ll help, in terms of making sure that your area is well-ventilated.”

The best thing is really to perform good hand washing. “Wash your hands at least 20 seconds with soap and water, and try to avoid touching your face, particularly eyes, nose and mouth, after you’ve touched other surfaces when you’re in public areas, like on a plane or on a subway or other mass transit. It’s always important to get travel insurance, but it’s more important now than ever,” Dr Thomas said.

All the three doctors agreed that wearing a mask is necessary only if you are sick, not otherwise.


• It is prudent for travelers who are sick to delay or avoid travel to affected areas, in particular for elderly travelers and people with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions.

• Travelers returning from affected areas should self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days and follow national protocols of receiving countries. If symptoms occur, such as fever, or cough or difficulty breathing, travelers are advised to contact local health care providers and inform them of their symptoms and their travel.

• Follow general recommendations for personal hygiene, hand wash, cough etiquette and keeping a distance of at least one metre from persons showing symptoms.

• Make sure you have a travel insurance

• If somebody near you is unwell on the aircraft, bring it to the attention of the crew - there are established procedures for them to separate that person.

• Carry antibacterial wipes and antibacterial gel, so that you can clean the area around your seat. The antibacterial gel should have at least a 60 per cent alcohol rate. Make sure to clean your tray table too, and avoid putting things in the backseat pocket

• Make sure that your seat is well-ventilated by using the air vent that’s right above your seat.