Eating in a flight

We’re flying for the first time in a long time for a trip that Covid delayed. How risky is it to take your mask off to eat for a fully vaxxed person? A lot of the sources I’m seeing are from last year. Thanks.

Despite all the assurances you’ve seen about how often air is filtered on an aircraft, the reality is that you are in an enclosed space with many other strangers, most of whom are probably less concerned as you are about mask-wearing and other mitigations against contracting an airborne respiratory virus. If you’ve ever sat on a plane and smelled someone’s body odor or that they are a smoker, you know that you are inhaling other passengers’ exhaled breath. The odds that one of the couple dozen or so people near you being infected and shedding virus is not negligible, especially with how quickly the BA.2 variant is now spreading.

Personally, I wouldn’t eat and would try to minimize drinking or anything else that involves removing your mask. But then, I’m avoiding air travel as much as possible and am overly concerned about the uncertainties of contracting SARS-CoV-2 and suffering post-acute sequelae (‘long COVID’) syndrome compared to the general public even with full vaccination and boosted status.


Most if not all passenger airliners put their entire air supply through a HEPA air filtration system every few seconds. Don’t worry about it.

Edited to add: Did a few flights last week, including a 14 hour one, and didn’t smell anyone else. Not so much as a fart.

Thanks, that’s kind of my feeling. My wife is more inclined to eat on the plane.

Loss of sense of smell is a symptom of Covid…

Despite all the warnings you’ve heard about how an aircraft is an enclosed space, the reality is that the air is completely replaced very quickly. And “how quickly the BA.2 variant is now spreading” is “not very”: All new case numbers, of all variants, are now very low.

I was on a flight last month. The airport and airlines were pretty strict and insistent on everybody wearing a mask at all times. But…there were restaurants open (McD’s, etc. in a food court) in the airport, and they served drinks and snax on the planes.

So the attitude seemed to be “figure it out yourself.”

In the United States (currently) yes; in Europe, and especially France and Germany, new cases are or just have risen rapidly. When that happened in the ‘Delta’ and original ‘Omicron’ surges, it has presaged rising levels in the United States (although not evenly distributed for reasons that are still not understood by epidemiologists). The United States is doing a very poor job in rtPCR testing so the reported new infections are unquestionably a lowball figure, which is confirmed by wastewater sample surveillance.

Commercial aircraft have a main cabin air replacement rate between 8 and 15 full exchanges per hour (so every 4 to 8 minutes), which is significantly better than most enclosed buildings; however, the infectivity of the BA.2 variant is so high that the viral load threshold probably only requires an exposure of a couple of minutes. In other words, if you are sitting close to someone who is actively shedding virions and inhaling air containing even a small fractions of their exhalations, you will be exposed. Whether you are concerned about exposure depends on your vaccination state and underlying health but obviously removing a mask for enough time to eat significantly increases a likelihood of infection.

I know that many if not most people are really, really done with the whole pandemic but that doesn’t mean the virus is done with us. I’ve retired my crystal ball about making even vague guesses about what comes next and archived the multivariate Markov chain model I spent months tooling with after the ‘Delta’ outbreak invalidated all previous model verification, but I would put real money down that we will see another outbreak before the end of the year (if not much sooner) even barring yet another variant emerging with even more immune escape and/or infectiousness.


Thanks for the comments. FWIW, we’re in business, so the only person in our immediate proximity will be each other.

Nice username/post combo!

I think Stranger is probably right about the risk, but the last few flights I took, the reason I ate on the flight was so I could remove my mask for awhile. And I nursed my drink for as long as possible too.

never mind

How long is your flight? I took two trips during the past year, with all four flights being ~3 hours. I made it a point to avoid eating/drinking during these flights so I could keep my mask on (whereas pre-pandemic I would have enjoyed a sandwich/chips and a bottle of water).

If your flight is a little longer than that, you’ll want to drink something mid-flight to stay hydrated. Depending on the timing, you may opt to eat something just before departure too so that you can handle the entire flight without eating.

With daily new case counts being fairly low lately, your risk of being seated near someone who is actively shedding virus is fairly low. And if you’re fully vaxxed and fundamentally healthy with no major risk factors, then your risk of developing a severe COVID infection (e.g. hospitalization, long-COVID) is very low.

In the end? Choose your own adventure.

It’s a flight from DC to Bozeman. We’re in business, so the only person sitting next to me is my wife. Our risk is increased because we are going from blue America to red, which hasn’t taken the threat as seriously and which has had higher rates of infection and death as a result. Presumably, some of those types will be on the flight.

I’m not so much worried about getting Covid, as spreading the virus through my selfish behavior. This trip was originally scheduled for 2020 and we’re taking our first plane trip since The start of Covid.

I have a couple of comments based on my one pandemic air travel experience.

The airline was NOT GOOD about spreading the passengers out. First, there was a swathe of seats towards the front of the cabin were designated as premium seating for one reason or another, and they carried an upcharge.

The other passengers then booked flights they way many people tend to do, selecting either a window or aisle standard priced seat as close to the front as possible. So even though the flight was very lightly booked, most of the two dozen or so passengers were clumped together towards the middle of the plane, with rows and rows of empty seats surrounding them.

I moved to a cheap seat in the back of the plane, but the flight attendants didn’t suggest spreading out, and no one else did. I think about half of the other passengers were traveling as a group.

I’m not sure if this is relevant, it happened in Feb 2021. They may be back to full flights by now.

The airline was VERY GOOD about enforcing the mask policy, the flight attendants were actively monitoring for non-compliance and if someone pulled their mask down, or even under their nose, they were immediately told to pull it back up.

And they are very clear that “taking it off while eating” means only taking it off for long enough to put food or drink in your mouth. You are expected to pull it back up between bites if you’re grazing……you can’t get away taking a half hour to eat a sandwich and keeping it off the entire time.

Thanks for this. I asked an acquaintance who is a Dr. Of pharmacy if she would take her mask off and she says she only takes hers off on flights for quick sips of water and she times it so that she doesn’t take it off during meal time so that her mask is on when most other people are unmasked.

Do you mean First Class, Business Class, and Premier* Class?

*goes by different names on different airlines.

That is nothing new.

For the most part, flights are all full these days.

No, not exactly. The plane had one cabin but they had “extra legroom” seats that cost about $35 bucks more (bulkhead and exit row). This is also pretty typical.

What was new to me was they were also charging about $15 bucks more for seats in the same 5-6 rows in the front of the cabin. Same spacing, same legroom, same service, just a few bucks more for getting to be first off the plane.

Mostly yes. But I was on a United flight from San Francisco to Newark a month ago that was less than half full. Maybe because it was a flight late on a Friday afternoon, arriving after midnight.