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Here's what to expect when you travel via plane as the pandemic continues

WUSA9 followed a flight from check-in to take-off to see all of the COVID safety measures in place that passengers can and can't see.

WASHINGTON — Social distancing signs on the floor, hand sanitizer stations all around and a mask mandate while in the airport. Yes, this is our new normal when traveling. 

Those are the safety measures you can see. But what have airports and airlines done to protect you in ways you can’t see? 

WUSA9 followed a flight from check-in to take-off at Dulles International Airport to bring you a picture of what pandemic travel looks like.

11:29 a.m.

Check-in for flight 1933 with service to Denver is underway. For some passengers, it's the first time they're seeing plexiglass around the check-in counters and touchless check-in options at the kiosks. 

11:35 a.m.

The TSA security checkpoint is also contactless. Instead of handing your ID to the agent, you show them your card and pull your mask down so they can verify your ID.

11:40 a.m.

Gate C11 is packed. Flight attendants are making pre-boarding announcements. With the exception of a few people who are eating, everyone is masked and huddled in the gate's seating area. 

11:50 a.m.

Shirley Ewald is boarding United flight 1933 with service to Denver.

"I'm excited," she says from the jet bridge, "I'm nervous, but I'm excited."

This is her first flight since the pandemic started. After 18 months of missing their sweet faces, Ewald and her husband are on their way to Salem, Oregon to see their grandchildren. Ewald said being fully vaccinated made her feel more comfortable about flying.

But according to a survey conducted by Fortune in February, six in 10 Americans still aren't ready to fly. 

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Sadhana Jackson, a Maryland mother of two, said it's going to take more research for her to feel safe.

"Honestly, I would need to see guidelines from CDC and the Fauci team to say that it is okay to fly for a long period of time," Jackson said. 

According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can travel safely within the United States.

But Leonard J. Marcus, one of about 20 researchers with the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, found even flyers that aren't vaccinated can feel comfortable traveling by plane. They conducted a gate-to-gate study of airline safety in October 2020 to assess the safety of flying during the pandemic.

"People can fly with a high degree of confidence, knowing that there are multiple layers in place to provide that protection from COVID-19 when they’re flying," Marcus said.

Following the study, they provided airlines with a list of recommendations to make the experience safer. Deep cleaning measures and increased use of the air filtration system are two of those recommendations, according to Marcus.

Depending on the size of the plane there can be anywhere from four to eight HEPA filters purifying the air, according to Brian Kerr, a designated station trainer with the United Airlines aircraft maintenance team. 

Kerr said HEPA filters are the keystones of a plane's air filtration system. They take air from outside of the plane and mix it with air from the cabin, run them through a HEPA filter and recirculate that air every 2 to 3 minutes.

"These are the same filters that we use in the hospitals," Kerr said. 

Marcus said the Harvard study revealed that before the pandemic, a plane's air filtration system was usually only activated while the plane was in flight.

"What we recommended is that [airlines] maintained the ventilation systems on the ground, as a protective layer against Covid transmission," Marcus said. 

He said all of the major domestic airlines accepted that recommendation.

Kerr said airplanes have been using HEPA filters for years, but said during the pandemic, United Airlines increased their maintenance. It’s a safety strategy all airlines have adopted according to industry experts, which Marcus said is key to keeping flyers safe.

"Your chances of acquiring the disease under those conditions are very low," he said. 

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Sneezes, even masked sneezes, can cause people on planes to shoot you a side-eye these days with people concerned about virus spread. Marcus said the likelihood of those germs spreading to other rows is unlikely.

"It’s very difficult to spread the germs because of the recirculating system and the fans themselves," Kerr said. 

According to him, the plane's fan system pulls the air down, and straight across toward the vents on the sides of the plane. With the additional protection in place because of the mask mandate on planes, Kerr believes the system is very safe.

If you've walked through an airport lately, you've probably seen cleaning staff wearing a backpack that looks like it came out of the Jetsons. It's a deep cleaning tool containing the cleaning solution for an electrostatic sprayer, which many major airlines have invested in, according to Marcus. 

While airlines use various EPA-approved cleaning solutions in their sprayers, Marcus said the science behind them is pretty similar. When bacteria or a virus lands on a surface where the cleaning solution has been sprayed, the virus is neutralized. Experts say that reduces the risk of a contaminated surface becoming a source of infection.

Electrostatic sprayers are used in airport ticketing lobbies to disinfect check-in monitors and counters.

According to Eddie Gordon, managing director of hub operations at Dulles International airport, electrostatic sprayers are used to deep clean those areas every night. Throughout the day, cleaning staff manually disinfect them with EPA-approved cleaning solutions.

Both cleaning techniques are also used to disinfect the plane cabins between each flight, according to Gordon and Marcus.

11:54 a.m.

We're back on the jet bridge with grandma Ewald, who is about to walk through the plane doors and find her seat. She looks back and asks if she should wipe down her tray table and seat before getting settled.

So should she?

According to Marcus, given the other safety measures in place (mask-wearing, deep cleaning and the increased maintenance of the air filtration systems) it's not necessary.

"The possibility of someone acquiring this respiratory disease from a surface is very, very low," he said.

Food service is another way that airlines say they have adjusted their service during the pandemic to make the experience safer.

"All the food and the drinks that we now serve are pre-packaged," Gordon said.

On United, passengers receive a clear baggie filled with a Stroopwafel, pretzels, a little bottle of water and a sanitizing wipe.

12:21 p.m.

Flight 1933 is backing away from the jet bridge. Flight attendants are reminding passengers about the mask mandate on planes.

If a passenger isn't wearing a mask, or isn't wearing one correctly, flight attendants will offer them a new mask free of charge. They'll also provide the passenger with a card that explains the mandate and potential fines associated with noncompliance.

"Failing to wear a mask is a federal offense, which will result in being refused transport and may result in of your travel privileges on future United flights," the card says. "The penalty for an inflight or airport disturbance is up to $35,000 and criminal prosecution."

Flight 1933 flight attendants say making sure passengers follow the mask mandate has become the toughest part of a flight.

1:00 p.m. 

Grandma Ewald is masked up, in her seat and excited about the trip ahead.

Here's to hoping she sends us pics of her reunion with the grandbabies!

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