In addition to halting most vacations in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has largely stripped away one of air travel’s few small pleasures: in-flight food and drink service.
Since March, most airlines, including Delta, United, American, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue, have vastly limited or wholly suspended flight attendant service of food and drinks to reduce cabin interactions that could spread the virus. Longer flights have more food options than short routes, and service typically depends on flight length.
But some airlines are beginning to bring back plane snacks and drinks as we knew them, allowing longer flights to offer free refreshments, for-purchase food and even alcoholic beverage service.
Knowing what scientists have learned about studying coronavirus transmissions linked to flights recently — and as daily infections hit record highs in the United States — can how you choose to eat on the plane impact your chances of picking up (or spreading) the coronavirus?
Following new studies on the impact of limited food service and increased masking on flights, experts say yes. While passengers have always been able to bring and consume their own food on flights, doctors say cabin service introduces unique risks.
“People contact remains the main issue, even if masked,” Dr. David Freedman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama who has reviewed studies on in-flight transmission, told the Washington Post.
Freedman says the face-to-face element of midflight service is important, and that a recent Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health study of coronavirus spread on planes concluded that nixing cabin service both limits movement in aisles that could spread viral droplets and discourages passengers from “demasking with their neighbors.”
The Harvard study, which partnered with the industry-funded Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI), found that layering health interventions like hand washing, surface sanitizing and enforced masking can make planes safer than indoor restaurants. It states that when passengers have their own food on hand, but not the option to order during a service period, “the removal of face masks will likely be more staggered such that not all passengers at a given time will be without masks.”
Bringing food and drink yourself limits interactions, and eating while your seatmate is masked is safer, Freedman says. He suggests working out with your close neighbors a staggered approach to eating and drinking, if possible.
The associate dean of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis, Bradley Pollock, says he would be more comfortable flying if airlines continued to minimize their flight attendants’ cabin movement. “I would not be happy if a flight attendant physically reaches over me to serve a window seat customer their drink,” Pollock says. “I’d also like my row mates to keep their masks on as much as possible.”
Freedman says he would eat food on the plane only if it was bagged ahead of the flight and he could pick it up by himself on the boarding bridge. He is less worried about fomites, or surfaces that carry the virus, which evidence now suggests play a smaller role in infection than previously thought, and says bringing your own food is even less of a risk. Frequent contact with crew and the people around, even during limited drink service, he says, is more of a risk.
“I would like to see mask-off [time] limited to 10 minutes at a time, and not allowed simultaneously by adjacent passengers.”
Airlines have new and vastly differing approaches to bringing back cabin service.
Delta, for example, has offered prepackaged bags that include crackers, cookies, a bottle of water and hand sanitizer on domestic flights since April. United, American and JetBlue have begun offering some in-flight service on many routes again, while Delta, Southwest and Alaska still forgo it completely on their shortest flights. On longer flights, typically 500 to 900 miles or more, packaged snacks and drinks are available by request.
United began a pilot program for a more touchless snack service beginning this month, offering select snacks, snack boxes, and beer and wine for purchase via its app. The return to offering those items is only on flights departing from Denver International Airport and flying to Boston, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport.
“Through this trial, United will be among the first U.S. carriers to reintroduce snacks and beverages for purchase in economy cabins,” United spokesperson Christine Salamone told the Post. Purchases will be made “through a contactless process involving no exchange of physical credit cards.”
As for hot main-cabin meals, United and Delta no longer offer them on any international flights and offer snacks instead. American, however, offers hot meals for the main cabin on its Hawaii and transcontinental flights.
Freedman, who has reviewed airline mask policies in his work, says Delta has a stricter mask policy than most airlines. Delta’s mask policy states that passengers are required to wear face coverings across all Delta touch points “except limited time while eating or drinking.”
The mask policy for American, the only other major U.S. airline that offers meal service on long flights, says, “The only time face coverings may be removed at the airport or on board is when the customer is eating or drinking.”