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Should I cancel my flight? Will recirculated air on a plane spread coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know before traveling

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Judi LiVigni was supposed to fly from New York to San Diego last week to visit her brother, who she usually sees only once a year. But the day of her flight, she chose to cancel her trip because of concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak. LiVigni, a 51-year-old registered dietician who lives on Long Island, had planned a quick weekend getaway, but doubts were swirling in her mind as new cases of COVID-19 were being confirmed on the West Coast.

Before her flight, she headed to a pharmacy to pick up hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes for her trip. She decided to ask the pharmacist for advice as to whether or not she should travel. “She tells me that she cancelled her upcoming flight, that’s all I needed to hear,” LiVigni said. “I decided I did not want to be strapped into a seat for six hours next to a potentially infected human.”

‘I decided I did not want to be strapped into a seat for six hours next to a potentially infected human.’

— Judi LiVigni, a 51-year-old registered dietician

As of Friday, there are now more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the virus worldwide. Some 72% of people have become more concerned about traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey conducted in late February by travel website Big 7 Travel. The International Air Transport Association has estimated that the global airline industry could record a $113 billion loss from coronavirus-related disruptions and cancellations.

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What about all that circulated air on airplanes?

Traveling by plane doesn’t necessarily increase the risk of contracting a communicable disease more than another kind of mass transit, according to the World Health Organization, as ventilation systems on aircraft use filters to trap bacteria and viruses before air is recirculated.

“Ventilation rates provide a total change of air 20 to 30 times per hour. Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50% of cabin air. The recirculated air is usually passed through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, of the type used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi and viruses.”

Airplane air is usually recirculated through the kind of filters used in ICUs.

“Transmission of infection may occur between passengers who are seated in the same area of an aircraft, usually as a result of the infected individual coughing or sneezing or by touch,” WHO noted on its website. “This is no different from any other situation in which people are close to each other, such as on a train or bus or in a theatre.”

Travelers should still disinfect where they are seated, wash their hands often, avoid touching their face and try to stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing, regardless of where or how they travel. Travel company AAA also recommends that people traveling abroad bring all necessary documentation including health-insurance cards, hand sanitizer and additional doses of medication.

Where are you traveling and how are you getting there?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that Americans avoid any non-essential travel to China, Iran, Italy and South Korea because of the large numbers of cases in those countries. Additionally, the CDC advised people traveling to Japan to take extra precautions to remain healthy.

The CDC has also suggested that all travelers reconsider any cruise trips to or within Asia as the outbreak continues. Despite these warnings about international travel, government officials have not put out any guidance advising people to avoid travel domestically.

Traveling to a country where community spread of the novel coronavirus will put you at an elevated risk of contracting the virus. Additionally, health officials in the U.S. may require people returning from those countries to undergo extensive health screenings or self-quarantine for 14 days when they get back, as has been the case for people returning from certain parts of mainland China, including the Hubei province where the virus likely originated.

Do you have a layover in another country as part of your travel itinerary?

Another consideration: Do you have a layover in another country as part of your travel itinerary? Other countries have instituted their own bans on people entering their borders because of the outbreak, which could complicate travel arrangements. (Flying direct as an alternative, of course, can cost more money.)

If you are feeling sick, you should obviously not travel. There is evidence of community spread in many parts of the U.S., meaning that people are contracting the virus even if they haven’t knowingly come into contact with someone who contracted the virus overseas. Anyone with potential coronavirus symptoms, such as a fever, headache or cough, stay home to avoid potentially spreading the virus, health officials say.

The fatality rate among those who have coronavirus varies widely based on age and health. Currently, data regarding coronavirus deaths suggest that people over the age of 70 are more likely to have severe symptoms and/or die from the illness than younger people. Fatality rates are also higher for those with pre-existing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension and cancer.

Kelsey O’Brien, pictured here in Las Vegas, decided to honeymoon with her husband in Hawaii rather than Italy because of concerns they had related to the coronavirus. “It’s been really hard as a consumer to understand is this a Level 10 emergency and I should cancel any plans and just stay here, or do I not need to cancel my plans at all,” she said.

Courtesy of Kelsey O’Brien

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Not all travelers are cancelling their trips outright. Some are rebooking for later dates or amending where they will go. Kelsey O’Brien, a 28-year-old social media manager and content creator in San Francisco, said she and her husband have changed where they will go for their honeymoon.

The couple married in late November and had decided to hold off on their honeymoon so they could save more money and spend more time planning the trip after their wedding. They had settled on a trip to Italy because of affordable airfares to Rome.

This week, the couple decided instead to go on a vacation to Hawaii to avoid the potential complications that could arise from traveling internationally, particularly to a country where there could be a larger outbreak of the virus.

Even with the change of location, O’Brien said she has concerns about how risky it is to travel right now. “It’s been really hard as a consumer to understand is this a Level 10 emergency and I should cancel any plans and just stay here, or do I not need to cancel my plans at all,” O’Brien said. “I try to come at it from a place of compassion. My trip is not as important as someone else’s health.”

Will you be able to get a refund for your flight?

Many airlines, including United UAL, +1.23%, Delta DAL, +0.88% and JetBlue JBLU, +3.13%, have waived the fees typically associated with changing or cancelling one’s flight because of the coronavirus outbreak. Generally, consumers will need to have booked directly with the carrier — and not through a third-party website such as Expedia EXPE, -1.57% — to take advantage of these policies.

However, consumers shouldn’t expect additional compensation for canceled trips — or in instances where airlines cancel flights because of the outbreak. European law protects travelers on all flights out of the European Union and flights to the EU on EU-based airlines, allowing them to receive up to $700 in compensation per person for flights that are cancelled within 14 days of take-off or significantly delayed.

But the law includes a provision that exempts airlines from this requirement if the cancellation was outside of their control. “In the case of coronavirus, since this is an extraordinary circumstance and airlines are canceling to protect safety, travelers cannot claim compensation, but do have the right to get a refund for their tickets,” said Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer at AirHelp, an air-passenger advocacy organization.

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Will you be covered by travel insurance?

Although concerned travelers may be tempted to purchase a travel insurance policy because of the coronavirus right now, this coverage is unlikely to help them if their trip gets cancelled. “Once an event becomes common knowledge, it also becomes excluded by travel insurance policies,” according to travel insurance-comparison website Squaremouth. “This is because insurance providers consider it to have a foreseeable impact on travel.”

Travelers can purchase “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policies, which would still provide coverage under these circumstances. But these policies must be purchased within 21 days of the first booking and generally cost 40% more than the typical insurance policy, Squaremouth added.

Before taking this step, travelers should check with their airline, hotel or tour operators to know whether these companies have been offering refunds or charging cancellation fees. If it’s possible to cancel your booking at no charge for a full refund, travel insurance may not be worth the expense.