Jul 10, 2020 - Economy

Airlines say air quality, cleanliness lower coronavirus risk

Image of socially distanced passengers wearing masks on a plane.

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Airlines are trying to reassure customers the risk of being infected by the coronavirus on a flight is low because of their improved cleaning efforts and sophisticated cabin ventilation systems.

Why it matters: The airline industry can't recover until passengers feel it is safe to travel again.

The catch: If you're crammed into a seat next to a sick person — especially if they're not wearing a mask — the risk is higher.

How it works: The air on a plane is exchanged as frequently as 10 to 12 times per hour, writes Harvard public health professor Joseph Allen, author of "Healthy Buildings," in a Washington Post op-ed.

  • Air vents above passengers' heads push air downward, not sideways, to vents near the floor, which helps minimize infection from one passenger to another.
  • The air is cleaned using sophisticated HEPA filters that capture 99% of germs and viruses, then mixed with fresh air and recirculated every two to three minutes.

What to watch: New technologies being tested will make the ventilation systems even more effective.

  • Honeywell Aerospace, for instance, is developing cabin sensors that would detect buildups of carbon dioxide, indicating stagnant air.
  • This could occur, for example, during boarding, when people are crowding the aisles and exerting themselves.
  • "It's not dangerous, it's just an indicator of poor ventilation in this area," Honeywell's Tom Hart tells Axios.

Yes, but: Even with proper ventilation, on a crowded plane, it's difficult to avoid your neighbor breathing on you.

  • While some airlines are intentionally limiting bookings to allow for social distancing, some low-cost airlines are urging Transportation Department officials not to impose any capacity limits, including a requirement that airlines leave the middle seat vacant.
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