May 9, 2021

Is Flying First Class Actually Safer Amid the Pandemic?

If you’re thinking of getting on a plane in the near future, but still concerned about the health risks, would a seat in first class buy you more protection?

That’s the question many seasoned air travelers are currently asking themselves. Even though first-class perks have been scaled back, many say the benefits—a wider seat, priority boarding, and airport lounges—allow for more social distancing and are worth the extra money or miles.

The biggest issue for many fliers in the pandemic is indeed the amount of personal space they can claim, at the airport and on the plane. A recent survey of travelers by the International Air Transport Association found that 65 percent of those polled listed the prospect of sitting next to someone who might be infected as the top concern. (Using the restroom was second.)

Especially for longer flights, the added space can be substantial. According to industry data, first-class seats on international wide-body planes like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner offer roughly three times the space—around 1,600 square inches—than a cramped coach seat, which averages around 527 square inches. The fares reflect that disparity; data from the Airlines Reporting Corp., a clearinghouse for airlines, show that as of last year, international business- and first-class fares cost more than four times the coach fare. For domestic flights, premium fares can be double or triple the economy fare but, for that price, you get just a bit more space: 756 square inches on a typical Airbus A320 layout, according to ARC.

Some airlines are continuing to block middle seats in coach, but even then, you aren’t really getting a full six feet of distance from your seatmates. A premium seat essentially guarantees a bigger slice of the real estate, especially on airlines that keep their front cabins at less than full capacity.

Take the experience of Tobie Stanger, a magazine writer who lives outside of New York, who flew to Colorado in July on Delta and used miles to get upgraded to first class. “If you’ve got a bunch of points saved up, and you know you aren’t going to be using them, why not?” she says. With adjacent seats kept empty, the extra space in the cabin was significant, she says. While her in-flight service consisted of a bottle of water, some cookies, and a packet of wipes, she says the roomier digs were worth it.

But is this theory backed up by any medical evidence? How much added protection do you really get from flying first or business class? We asked a couple of medical experts to weigh in, and the answer was: not much.

“It really doesn’t make much difference where you sit on the plane” says Dr. Mark Gendreau, chief medical officer at Beverly and Addison Gilbert hospital, near Boston. “What’s most important are the precautions we are carrying out: face masks, proper hand hygiene, sanitizing surfaces,” he says. That, combined with hospital-grade HEPA air filters throughout the plane, have made it less likely the virus can be transmitted in flight. “The air carriers are doing their part disinfecting the cabin between flights, and they’ve stepped it up. The last thing they need is a rash of infected cases on their airplanes.”

In fact, he notes, one of the few documented cases of COVID-19 transmission on board a plane involved a business-class passenger who had contracted the virus, traveling from London to Hanoi on March 1 on a Vietnam Airlines flight. A report on the incident from the Centers for Disease Control found that 15 passengers on the flight were infected as a result, 12 of whom were also in business class. At the time, however, there was no mask requirement for airline passengers, and other COVID-19 measures, like temperature checks and deep cleaning of cabins had yet to take effect industrywide.

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