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The Science of Air Quality on Planes: How it Affects Passengers

Air quality is an important factor impacting the health and comfort of passengers aboard commercial aircraft. As air travel has grown significantly, scientific understanding of ventilation systems and their ability to prevent disease transmission at high altitudes has advanced greatly (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, 2018). Proper airflow and filtration are crucial to passenger well-being, especially during viral pandemics.


Commercial jetliners rely on high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to scrub 99.97% of airborne microbes from the recirculated air supply, exchanging full cabin volumes every 2-3 minutes (Beggs et al., 2006). Positive pressure within the aircraft prevents outside air from leaking in and redistributes exhaled breathable air upwards rather than laterally between passengers (Schooley & Nicolini, 2021). However, seated proximity and lengthy exposure times mean transmission is still possible without masks.


Recent studies found SARS-CoV-2 infection risk correlated significantly with distance from contagious passengers as well as flight duration, with longer trips posing higher threat without interventions like mandatory masking (Xie et al., 2022). The recirculating air may transport expelled viral particles despite filtration if inhaled shortly after, especially as masks slip during eating and drinking. Increased humidity also promotes droplet evaporation into smaller aerosols staying aloft for longer.


Air quality affects traveler wellness beyond disease. Low cabin humidity levels below 20% trigger dryness of nasal passages, throat and eyes along with headaches, tiredness and dizziness (Seto & Morawska, 2022). Contaminants from other passengers like perfumes and pre-flight cleaning agents cause allergic reactions or breathing issues in sensitive individuals as well. Constantly filtered and exchanged air helps dilute such airborne triggers.


Proper ventilation and filtration systems are crucial for traveler safety and comfort. Raised awareness of these impacts on the body can motivate precautions like staying hydrated, wearing quality masks, avoiding strong scents, and reporting concerns to crew members for investigating. Combining individual care with collective responsibility safeguards air quality for all passengers.


References

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. (2018). Airborne infectious diseases. In 2018 ASHRAE handbook: HVAC systems and equipment (pp. 6.1–6.10). https://www.ashrae.org/file%20library/about/periodicals/journal/ashraejournal/2020articles/march2020/airbornediseases.pdf

Beggs, C. B., Noakes, C. J., Sleigh, P. A., & Fletcher, L. A. (2006). The ventilation of commercial aircraft and risk of disease transmission during flight: A review. Journal of Infection, 53(3), 151–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinf.2006.04.008

Schooley, T. R., & Nicolini, L. A. (2021). Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on aircraft: Why 2 meters (6 feet) may not be enough? Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 42, 101996. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tmaid.2021.101996

Seto, W.-H., & Morawska, L. (2022). Health impacts of in-flight air quality: Microbiome, allergens and ventilation. Journal of Travel Medicine, 29(2), taac012. https://doi.org/10.1093/jtm/taac012

Xie, X., Li, Y., Chwang, A. T. Y., Ho, P. L., & Seto, W.-H. (2022). Potentials, challenges, and policy implications of ventilation and air filtration against indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Building and Environment, 208, 108382. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2021.108382

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