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What Airlines Are Doing To Help Alleviate Your Coronavirus Concerns

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fears over the spread of the coronavirus have led to a slump in air travel as businesses restrict employee travel, trade shows and conferences are cancelled, families reconsider vacation plans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of contracting the virus on an airplane is relatively low. And as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, travelers can take steps to further reduce their risk.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Airport terminals have all kinds of potentially germy surfaces. That kiosk touch screen where you check in - I mean, who used that last? - those trays at security that you put your laptop, shoes and phone in. And then there's the plane itself.

TAMMY LEVENT: I look like a complete freak when I'm on an airplane...

SCHAPER: Travel agent Tammy Levent is CEO of Elite Travel.

LEVENT: ...Because I pull out my Clorox wipes. I wipe down the seat in front of me, my hand rests, my seatbelt and the headrest behind me and my tray every time I travel.

SCHAPER: The airlines themselves say they're wiping down those surfaces more often, too, as they try to reassure passengers that their planes are clean and safe. Charlie Hobart is a spokesman for United Airlines.

CHARLIE HOBART: The cleaning procedures for international and domestic aircraft include a wipe-down of the hard surfaces touched by customers. We use a special cleaning solution that also includes a special disinfectant.

SCHAPER: And Hobart says if a passenger or crew member ends up with a confirmed case of COVID-19, that aircraft immediately undergoes a deeper cleaning.

HOBART: And that includes washing the ceilings and the overhead bins, scrubbing the interior, disinfecting the entire aircraft.

SCHAPER: Health experts say it's highly unlikely that the surfaces inside the plane will get you sick. But what about the air?

SARA NELSON: The idea that circulated air or the air vents is increasing the likelihood of getting this disease is false. That is not correct at all.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Contrary to popular belief, planes do not just recirculate the same old dirty air. They're constantly pumping in fresh air that is cleaned by high-efficiency filters. So the air on planes is actually cleaner than the air in many homes and offices. The greatest risk, health officials say, comes from other people. And Nelson points out that on airplanes, with ever-shrinking seats, people sit very close to one another. So...

NELSON: If you are sick, you need to stay home.

SCHAPER: And if you are not sick, you can minimize your risk by following the CDC's advice to properly wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, don't touch your face, and hope that no carrier of the virus sneezes on you. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport, many of those who are still traveling don't seem to worry about the coronavirus.

CHERISE EDMONDS: You know what? I just trust in God.

SCHAPER: Forty-nine-year-old Cherise Edmonds is returning from a business trip to Vancouver.

EDMONDS: I mean, I'm concerned. But if something's going to happen to me, it's going to happen (laughter).

SCHAPER: Thirty-one-year-old consultant Alvin Tan says he's a bit concerned. But he has to travel for work.

ALVIN TAN: It is what it is. There's no point panicking. And, I mean, personally, at home, I have, like, enough supplies to survive two weeks of quarantine. So pretty good right there.

SCHAPER: OK. But why does he have two weeks' worth of supplies at home?

TAN: Be prepared for a zombie apocalypse. I think that's more dangerous (laughter).

SCHAPER: At times like this, it helps to have a sense of humor. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.