According to the studies of the European Aviation Safety Agency, the air in the aircraft is changed every 2-3 minutes and the filters it goes through are able to eliminate even coronavirus.
The main question nowadays, at the time of global coronavirus outbreak, is whether it is safe to fly or is there a big possibility to get infected while on board? With the connections between China and the rest of the world, many turned their attention to the aircraft cabin, in particular on the air that passengers breathe, sometimes even for as long as 17-18 hours (on intercontinental flights).
It is only reasonable that there are doubts about the aircraft - they are enclosed spaces, where one is in close contact with other travelers, almost all of whom are strangers and whose past, contacts and trips are obviously unknown. Therefore, even the tiniest sneeze or cough worries everyone around.
IATA, the international association that brings together 300 airlines around the globe confirms that in reality, the air on board is very clean and really safe. To confirm such fact, there are two studies of EASA, the independent European agency for aviation safety, 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 it is that the aircraft system is designed to circulate air, which is 50% taken from outside and 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.
The air on airplanes is highly sterile. The planes, especially the latest generation ones, have efficient and modern filters called high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA), which are identical to those of hospitals and therefore manage to capture and block up to 99.97% of the microbes present (numbers estimated by IATA). A percentage that some companies confirm on their aircraft board rises to 99.999%, thus 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, thus it is wrong to assume that airliners are a place for virus to spread freely and unhindered.
Fresh air every 2-3 minutes
Nevertheless, aircraft renews the air in the cabin frequently for it to be fresh and healthy to breathe, which is not usually performed in classrooms, cinemas nor offices. Airbus states that their A350s change all the air in the cabin 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", continues the IATA representative.
All 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 spread of diseases, rather than a way of transportation which encourages spread of viruses. To control the ongoing epidemic, it is important to track down all contacts during travel. People flying, go through multiple screenings at airports, where health officials are able to identify an infected person way before the trip, containing disease in an origin country. In case 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 had a contact. Additionally, it should be noted, that most airports are disinfected couple of times per day, while some hospitals don’t even have capabilities to carry out disinfection airports do. Airlines also carry out disinfection on their aircraft before and after every flight. With precautious measures aviation sector is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, countries should overthink bans and closures of air travel as the other means of transportation cannot guarantee effective examination and control of people travelling.
By Gediminas Ziemelis
The author is a Lithuanian businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and business consultant, selected twice among the top 40 most talented young industry leaders by Aviation Week & Space Technology. He is currently the Chairman of the Board at Avia Solutions Group and Vertas Management.