As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak continues to rise, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the risks of potential exposure during air travel, based on how close you’re sitting to someone with the infection. 

Looking through window aircraft at wing during flight with blue sky.
The CDC's latest guidelines can help travellers determine whether they're at risk of contracting the coronavirus © Lucky Business/Shutterstock

According to the CDC’s interim guidelines, plane passengers seated within 6ft (2m) of a person with a symptomatic laboratory-confirmed case of the infection are at medium risk of exposure. That’s about two seats away, in each direction, from a fellow traveller displaying symptoms like a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing. 

CDC plane seating diagram.jpg
The CDC's sample seating chart details airplane passengers' risk levels based on distance from an infected traveller © Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If you haven’t travelled from mainland China or lived with, cared for, or been an intimate partner of someone with the infection, and you’re seated within two rows – but not within 6ft (2m) – of a traveller with a confirmed, symptomatic infection, your risk of contracting the coronavirus is low. Those at high risk have had that close contact or travelled from China’s Hubei Province, where the illness originated, while those who have merely spent time in the same room or walked by someone exhibiting symptoms have no identifiable risk of becoming infected. 

For people at high and medium risk, immediate isolation is required, the CDC says, and air travel should be restricted to medical transport. (On the ground, it’s ambulance only, though private vehicles are permitted if face masks are involved). People at low risk should avoid long-distance commercial travel via plane, train, or bus, as well public transit, activities, and contact with others while symptomatic.

The illness, which the World Health Organization officially named COVID-19 on Tuesday, has claimed more than 1300 lives as of Thursday.  

Outside of China, the coronavirus seems to be spreading slowly, but that pace “could accelerate,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted on Sunday. “There’ve been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to [China]. The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.” 

Keep up to date with Lonely Planet's latest travel-related COVID-19 news.

Read more: 

How airlines are trying to ensure coronavirus does not spread on board planes

Ask Tom: Lonely Planet’s travel expert Tom Hall answers travellers questions on the rapidly evolving Coronavirus pandemic

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NEPAL COUNTRYSIDE, OCTOBER 2018: CLOSE UP: Colorful tourist bus drives along a scenic road in the green Nepalese mountains. Old bus drives tourists and locals along the scary Pasang Lhamu highway.; Shutterstock ID 1495188476; GL: 65050; netsuite: Lonely Planet Online Editorial; full: How to get around Nepal; name: Brian Healy
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Colorful tourist bus drives along a scenic road in the green Nepalese mountains. Old bus drives tourists and locals along the scary Pasang Lhamu highway.

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