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Airplane Air Quality: The Mechanics of the System

By November 2, 2019 No Comments

If you’ve traveled on a plane, you’ve experienced the thrill of hurling through the air. You might have also experienced a sore throat, itchy eyes, or congestion following your flight. Airplane air quality isn’t the best – you’re flying in a confined space with a bunch of strangers, breathing in the same air they are breathing out.

A recent bill introduced in the House of Representatives puts the issue of aircraft cabin air safety back on the political agenda. Bill H.R. 2208, The Cabin Air Safety Act of 2019, is a framework to look into and focus on ways to ‘improve the safety of the air supply on commercial aircraft, and for other purposes’. It does not take a great leap of deduction to consider that there must be a certain level of concern for the health and safety of passengers, flight attendants, and other staff, if this course of action is being taken.

So what are the mechanics of aircraft cabin air production, circulation, and filtration? What are the issues with the current systems? And do you need to be concerned if you are planning a flight?

Aircraft Air Systems

Air intake systems on most aircraft use the same basic system. Outside air is pulled into the aircraft via the air intake system, is passed through filtration and then through a heating or cooling process before being mixed with the air already in the cabin. As the air circulates around the cabin a regulated amount of it is drawn into the outside atmosphere, as the next amount in drawn in. These processes continue maintaining the necessary level of pressurization as they continue their seamless convection.

Specific types of filtration systems are more dependent on the aircraft itself, but it is generally considered that airlines favor underfloor high-efficiency particle filters (HEPA) because of their ability to filter small germs and bacteria. However, the lack of moisture in the recirculated air has the potential to dry out the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, making passengers even more susceptible to catching germs transmitted by others on the flight.

Concerns with Current Systems

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detail the possibility for ill health as a result of air quality during inflight travel. The impact of this is also of concern to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), and the Air Safety, Health and Security Department (ASHS). After all, it is not just people flying for business and pleasure who are impacted by cabin air quality. Flight crew are potentially the most at risk, through their constant occupational exposure.

Potential problems with aircraft cabin air may be three-fold. First, there is the equivalent of ‘acclimating’. The amount of available oxygen, and the cabin pressure, will be different from what most people are used to, akin to the amount on top of a mountain. This may have a physical impact. After all if we are even slightly unwell our bodies have to work much harder to compensate. Second, that more outside air is desirable to ensure that the cabin air is changed as frequently as possible. And third, that there is a potential for outside air to be tainted with contaminants. This final point is a common complaint amongst flight crew who have suggested that undesirable particles, such as heated engine oil, hydraulic fluid, other aircraft’s exhaust fumes when on the ground, and even increased levels of ozone gas can be transmitted through the aircraft’s ventilation system.

Precautions You Can Take

The most important precaution you can take, the aspect that is within your full control, is to ensure that for the days and weeks prior to your flight you prioritize your hydration, and eat a healthy diet in order to have a robust immune system. When you maintain physical strength on a basic cellular level, your body is in a better position to fight infection and manage the stresses and strains of air travel. A healthy system will always give you a flying start. Maintaining a good level of personal health and hygiene throughout your flight is of major benefit. Drinking plenty of water to keep hydrated and to flush your system, keeping your throat lubricated and your mucous membranes fighting fit, scrupulous hand washing before meals and after visiting the toilet, and the use of a hand sanitizer at regular intervals will minimize the risk of picking up nasty bacteria which might spoil your trip.

Then, purchasing a face mask or nose filter may provide additional support to the onboard systems. When using these precautionary devices it is essential to ensure that you are breathing in a way that maximizes their effect. Many people are resistant to using a mask for the very obvious ‘patient zero’ look and the stares and glances it generates. 

Nasal filters have the obvious benefit of being more discreet, however in order to maximize their benefit, nasal breathing must be employed. There is no point to having the filters, then breathing through your mouth for an entire flight. Relaxed, steady breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is a necessity for this method, and with it you have a secondary system of filtration, to support your inflight air consumption. It is a potential way of offsetting the nonstop sneezer sitting next to you, and managing the issue of confinement in a manner in which onboard systems cannot.

Utilizing the factors that are within your control and maximizing your health is essential during air travel. Doing so will give you a greater chance of starting the trip off on the right foot – not missing out on fun opportunities as an annoying cold takes hold as soon as you touch down in your destination.


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