Cabin air considerations for COVID-19

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According to the studies by EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency), the air in the aircraft is changed every 2-3 minutes and the filters that air passes through are able to eliminate bugs including coronavirus.

The main question today, at the time of the global coronavirus outbreak, is whether it is safe to fly or if there is there a likelihood of becoming infected while on board. In terms of flights connecting China and the rest of the world, which can be as long as 17-18 hours, many experts and the public turned their attention to aircraft cabin hygiene, in particular the air that passengers breathe.

It is only reasonable that there are doubts about aircraft cabins – they are enclosed spaces, where one is in close contact with other travellers, almost all of whom are strangers and whose past, contacts and trips are obviously unknown. Therefore, even the tiniest sneeze or cough from a passenger worries everyone around them. 

Studies

IATA, the international association that brings together 300 airlines around the globe, says that in reality, the air on board an aircraft is very clean and really safe. To confirm this statement as fact, we can look at two studies by EASA dating back to 2017. Those documents claim that the air quality in the cabin is similar or even better than that normally recorded in indoor environments such as offices, schools and homes. The reason for this air quality is that the aircraft system is designed to circulate air, 50% of which is taken from outside, while 50% is internal and filtered. In some cases, like Delta Air Lines’ Boeing 717s, the air is taken entirely from the outside and adapted to be suitable to breathe inside. 

Sophisticated filters

The air on airplanes is highly sterile, especially the latest-generation aircraft, which have efficient and modern filters called high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA), which are identical to those used in hospitals and are can capture and block up to 99.97% of any microbes present (numbers estimated by IATA). Some companies even claim a figure of 99.999%, stopping small viruses of even 0.01 micrometers in diameter, while coronavirus size ranges from 0.08 to 0.16 micrometers. It is important to understand that air filters in aircraft are capable of dealing with far smaller particles than coronavirus, and it is thus wrong to assume that aircraft cabins are a place where viruses can spread freely and unhindered.

Fresh air every 2-3 minutes

Nevertheless, cabin air needs to be frequently refreshed in order for it to be fresh and healthy to breathe – something which is not usually performed in classrooms, cinemas or offices. Airbus states that with the A350, all the air in the cabin is changed every 2-3 minutes; similar times are also recorded in the rival Boeing 787. The interior environments of the aircraft are also regularly disinfected.

“The risk of contracting the virus from an infected person at high altitude is in all probability lower than that of enclosed spaces, such as offices”, stated an IATA representative.

All IATA member airlines are required to regularly update themselves by consulting a special database within the international association, so you can be sure that the information you receive is the latest and always reliable.

Aviation: a way to control spread of diseases

With modern aircraft having capabilities to filter out nearly all microbes and viruses, we should see airplanes as a way to control the spread of diseases, rather than a way of transportation which encourages the spread of viruses. To control the ongoing epidemic, it is important to identify all points of contact during travel. When flying, people go through multiple screenings at airports, where health officials are able to identify an infected person way before the trip, containing disease in the origin country. In the event that a person passes a check at an origin airport while infected, checks are also carried out at destination airport. The benefit of air travel is that it makes it easier to track down people with whom an infected person has had contact.

It should also be noted that most airports are disinfected a couple of times per day, while some hospitals don’t even have capabilities to carry out the disinfection procedures that airports do. Airlines also carry out disinfection on their aircraft before and after every flight. With the precautionary measures the aviation sector is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, countries should think twice about bans and closures of air travel, as other means of transportation cannot guarantee effective examination and control of people travelling.

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