Here are two reports on research results for air travel in the age of the COVID–19 pandemic.
Kenya’s “pulse” reports Coronavirus: International Air Transport Association (IATA) welcomes US Military Report on Low Risk of Catching COVID–19 on a Flight. Here is the report in full.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) welcomed the release of the results of testing by the United States Transportation Command (US Transcom) confirming the low risk of COVID–19 transmission onboard an aircraft.The US Transcom testing, which was conducted in August, found that “the overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low” on the types of airline aircraft typically contracted to move Department of Defense (DOD) personnel and their families, US Transcom stated. More than 300 aerosol releases, simulating a passenger infected with COVID–19, were performed over eight days using United Airlines Boeing 767–300 and 777–200 twin aisle aircraft. “Last week, IATA reported that since the start of 2020 there have been 44 cases of COVID–19 reported in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey, out of 1.2 billion passenger journeys in 2020. The US Transcom research provides further evidence that the risk of infection onboard an aircraft appears to be very low, and certainly lower than many other indoor environments,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. The US Transcom testing showed that the aerosol was “rapidly diluted by the high air exchange rates” of a typical aircraft cabin. Aerosol particles remained detectable for a period of less than six minutes on average. Both aircraft models tested removed particulate matter 15 times faster than a typical home ventilation system and 5–6 times faster “than the recommended design specifications for modern hospital operating or patient isolation rooms.” Testing was done with and without a mask for the simulated infected passenger. The testing was conducted in partnership with Boeing and United Airlines, as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Zeteo Tech, S3i and the University of Nebraska’s National Strategic Research Institute.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of International Air Transport Association (IATA).
With much more on safety while flying, National Geographic asks How clean is the air on planes? And they answer: High-tech filters and low-tech masks: How technology and personal responsibility might make flying safer than you think.
Here are excerpts.
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has reminded us that having access to clean air is a global health priority. While industrial pollution has dominated headlines for decades, COVID–19 brings the conversation indoors. The quality of indoor air—which way it flows, how much it does or doesn’t allow for pathogens to disperse or disappear—can make the difference between staying well or getting infected. Among the interiors repeatedly named as potential hot zones for infections (churches, nursing homes, and cruise ships) airplane cabins are a focal point of anxiety.
So it’s a surprise to find that the air inside a plane is cleaner than you might think. Thanks to HEPA filters and efficient circulation on commercial aircrafts, the air you breathe in flight—though not necessarily entirely virus-free—is much cleaner than the air in restaurants, bars, stores, or your best friend’s living room. Here’s why you don’t need to fear the air up there.
How airplane air gets cleaned
Most, but not all, commercial aircraft are equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. That means that, on HEPA-equipped planes, the airflow “mirrors the laminar airflow of an operating room with no or minimal crossover of air streams,” says Dr. Bjoern Becker of the Lufthansa Group of airlines. “Air is pumped from the ceiling into the cabin at a speed of about a yard per second and sucked out again below the window seats.”
About 40 percent of a cabin’s air gets filtered through this HEPA system; the remaining 60 percent is fresh and piped in from outside the plane. “Cabin air is completely changed every three minutes, on average, while the aircraft is cruising,” says Becker. (Lufthansa has a video showing how HEPA filters work.)
Officially, certified HEPA filters “block and capture 99.97 percent of airborne particles over 0.3 micron in size,” says Tony Julian, an air-purifying expert with RGF Environmental Group. The efficiency of these filters, perhaps counterintuitively, increases for even smaller particles. So while the exhaled globs that carry SARS-CoV–2 can be quite small, HEPA filters effectively remove the vast majority from the air.
How reliable are filters?
HEPA’s 99.97 percent filtration effectiveness sounds reassuring, and airline execs count on that. But the biggest problem with those systems, says Bates, is that the “filter only guarantees the quality of the air that has passed through it. If the air that someone breathes in has not gone through that filter, then those numbers don’t matter.”
That’s why, in addition to good filters, airline cabins also need good passengers. This means everyone onboard should wear a mask.
Ways to keep yourself safer in flight
The biggest risk when flying just might be the airport, boarding, and take off/landing experience. People in close indoor proximity, perhaps not wearing masks, could spell infection. Keeping that six feet (or more) of social distance while getting to your gate, into your seat, or deplaning is probably more important than anything else you can do (except covering your face).
If you must fly, choose an airline that enforces its own protective rules. At a minimum, you’ll be less stressed that you’ll have to be a mask enforcer. As of mid-August 2020, it seems that Alaska Airlines is being the most vigilant of U.S. carriers about mask wearing.
On board, minimize contact with surfaces and wash your hands well before touching your face (including your mask). There’s no need to fly in a HAZMAT suit, however, says Dr. Ken Perry, an emergency physician in Charleston, South Carolina. “People would be much better off being fastidious with their mask use rather than worrying about gloves and other devices.”
Scientists no longer think that touching objects and then touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with dirty hands is the primary source of COVID–19 transmission. However, a recent report involving inflight transmission suggests an asymptomatic person spread the disease via surfaces in the toilet.
Airlines have upped their cleaning regimes, including disinfecting planes with electrostatic sprayers. And with just-announced emergency approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Airlines will start treating high-touch areas (seat backs, tray tables) with SurfaceWise2, a coating said to kill coronavirus for up to seven days.
In flight, Fagbuyi recommends keeping your mask on as much as possible. That means avoiding eating and drinking while airborne. Cleaning your hands with sanitizer onboard is fine, Fagbuyi says, but “wash your hands with soap and water once you get off” the plane, and especially before removing your mask.
And though it might be uncomfortable, Dr. Joyce Sanchez, medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, says masking up doesn’t affect your oxygen or carbon-dioxide levels. “The overwhelming majority of people, including those with chronic lung and heart problems, can safely wear them,” she says.
Turns out the best way to make the skies friendlier right now is to cover up your smile.