If you’ve ever found yourself on an aircraft where another passenger was repeatedly coughing and sneezing, you were probably a bit concerned for your health. A common myth about aircraft is that, because all passengers are breathing the same air, if one passenger is sick, all other passengers are being exposed. However, thanks to air quality control systems aboard commercial airlines, it is just that: a myth. Whether you’re flying a long haul flight or a short commuter journey, there are a few things to know about the air quality you can expect on an aircraft.
As any airline carrier will be quick to clarify, the air the passengers are breathing during a flight is being regularly recirculated and filtered, meaning things like bacteria and viruses aren’t being recycled through the air. In actuality, thanks to the high-efficiency filters onboard commercial airlines, the air in the cabin is actually much less contaminated than that of the average office building, and is on par with the air in most hospitals. Most aircraft, apart from smaller or much older ones, are equipped with robust filter systems called High-Efficiency Particle Filters (HEPA Filters). These filtration systems filter and recirculate the air from the cabin and mix it with fresh air being taken in from the exterior of the aircraft. Oddly enough, the dirtier a HEPA filter gets, the more efficient it becomes. This means they can easily handle the passenger load, even on a large jet.
In addition to filtration, recirculation happens quickly. The HEPA Filtration system can make a complete air change once every two to four minutes. Therefore, fresh air fills the cabin 15 to 30 times per hour. Per IATA (the International Air Transport Association), "HEPA filters are effective at capturing greater than 99 percent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air. Filtered, recirculated air provides higher cabin humidity levels and lower particulate levels than 100 percent outside air systems."
The air within the cabin is roughly 50% fresh and 50% recycled. When being recycled, one of two things will happen to the air: some of it is dumped while the rest of it is pumped through the HEPA filter where 99% of all contaminants, including bacteriologic agents, are removed. Thanks to the air filters and air exchange ratio, the risk of catching an airborne virus on an aircraft is much lower than other confined spaces. This is especially true because air filtration systems on planes are set up to cover up to eight rows, so passengers aren’t being exposed to the same air passengers in other parts of the aircraft are breathing.
Despite the cleanliness of the air, many people do find themselves coughing and sneezing after a flight. This is because the air within the average aircraft cabin is exceptionally dry. In fact, the air in an aircraft is often drier than that of a desert. At the average flight altitude of most aircraft, the air’s moisture content is very low. This dries out passenger’s sinuses and nasal passages, making it easier to catch something passed on from a surrounding passenger.
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