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In-flight air quality: everything you need to know

11 December 2020 15:30

Let's clear the air and talk cabin hygiene

Let's clear the air and talk cabin hygiene

According to an International Air Travel Association (IATA) survey, 37% of travellers are worried about breathing the air on planes.

Here, we weigh up the facts so you can understand why COVID-19 transmission levels are surprisingly low for aeroplane passengers.


The air recirculated through planes travels through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. They trap particles wider than 10 nanometres which means 99.97% of COVID-19 particulates, which are roughly 125 nanometres wide, are filtered out by the system. The air mix on an aircraft is usually split 50/50 between the filtered air and fresh air from outside the plane.

Circulation and air flow

Air flows from top to bottom, rather than along the length of a cabin. Particles emitted by passengers are sent towards the floor, before being filtered out of the air supply. The filtered air joins fresh air to renew air in the cabin 20-30 times an hour, or once every two to three minutes. The airflow rate is higher on board a plane than in hospitals, where air is typically renewed every 10 minutes and in offices (every 20 minutes).

Social distancing v positioning

Many would-be travellers are concerned that not all airlines allocate passengers socially distanced seats. Research from Airbus shows that when travellers are positioned side by side on a plane, potential exposure to droplets from another passenger is actually lower than staying two metres apart in typical indoor environments. The aircraft builder's simulation measured air speed, direction and temperature at 50 million points in the cabin, up to 1,000 times per second.

Importance of face masks

Face masks are required on board flights from England, Scotland and Wales, and are recommended in Northern Ireland. Not only do they protect you from potential transmission from others, but they ensure droplets leaving the wearer don't travel in the direction of another passenger. Despite seatbacks acting as a physical barrier, some stray particles can reach other passengers when a plane is experiencing turbulence.

Risk of transmission

We've already seen how efficient filtration systems and renewed air work alongside seating and face masks to minimise infection rates. Recent studies also show that the chances of transmission on board planes are low. The IATA website explains that there are 44 cases of COVID-19 for every 27 million plane travellers. The association recommends that all passengers practice good hand hygiene and avoid touching their faces, especially after contact with commonly touched surfaces.

For more information on how to travel safely on a plane, see the Government's guidance on safer air travel for passengers.

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