A common myth about air travel is that if one person is sick on an airplane, all other passengers will get sick because they’re breathing the same air. On the contrary, the risk of catching something airborne on a plane is lower than in many other confined spaces because of the filters and air exchanges.

On most commercial aircraft, air is circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters (High-Efficiency Particle Filters), which remove 99 percent of bacteria, as well as the airborne particles that carry viruses (Droplets etc). On modern aircraft, there are changes in the air system approximately 15 to 30 times per hour, or once every two to four minutes, which is far more frequent than in offices, movie theatres, or classrooms.

Additionally, cabins are divided into separate ventilation sections (about every three to seven rows of seats), which means that a passenger shares air only with those in immediate environment and not with the passenger who’s coughing up ten rows back or front.

For germs to be passed from person to person through coughs and sneezes in airplanes, one needs to be sitting very close to a sick passenger, usually within two rows and for a long period of time to increase the chances of contracting an illness.

It should be noted that one drawback of air quality is its dryness. Air is relatively dry with around 12 percent humidity. This is chiefly a by-product of cruising at high-altitudes, where moisture content is low. While the air is clean, the dryness is bad for sinuses and can break down mucous barriers, making it easier to catch infection.

The most common way to pick up a bug when flying is from touching contaminated surfaces—tray tables, lavatory doors, and latches on overhead bins, armrests etc which may contain germs. As outlined by the WHO, protect yourself by using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and washing hands frequently with soap and water.

Dr Narendra Saini
Chairman Scientific Committee, Delhi Medical Council
IMA-EDB Corona Committee

 

Reading list

  1. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public. WHO https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public