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How clean is the air inside a plane?

Like it or not, to get on safari you’re going to be spending some time confined to an aircraft cabin. Not necessarily a bad thing.

The destination will be good – once in the wilderness the African air is clean and fresh, and you’re far from anywhere.  Quite possibly one of the best places to be in times of crisis – far away from crowds, stress, other concerns!

But you’re in for a plane ride. Just how bad is that? We’ve done some research and it’s not as bad as you might think.

For starters cabin air is fresh

Science Focus debunks the myth that airplane air is “stale”. The air in the cabin passes through high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters to remove bacteria and viruses. It’s then mixed 50:50 with fresh air from outside then vented back out of the aircraft. This constant process of replacement is done to control cabin temperature and to remove contaminants.

Cabin air is replaced completely around 15 to 30 times per hour. That’s every 2 to 4 minutes. (By comparison with the usual means of recirculating air in the normal home or office environment.)

Cabin air in an aircraft is clean

Aircraft climate control systems are more advanced than air conditioners. Purdue University air quality experts say that the HEPA filtration systems on planes remove particles as small as viruses (which is not the case on cruise ships where air conditioning systems mix outside air with inside air to save energy without fine filtration).

So on an aircraft, the bugs are more likely to spread by touch than through the air.

The airlines are on your side

No one wants to get ill – the airlines and crew are in the frontline.

Viruses such as colds and flu all travel on respiratory droplets from an infected person.  They’re spread through sneezing and coughing.  They rely on entering the body through nose, mouth and eyes.  Therefore, the usual precautions of hand washing and not touching your face apply on a plane. Same as in the cinema, workplace, or on a bus journey. Airline crews are well trained in such procedures and your fellow travellers now much more aware too.

Airlines are making concerted efforts to clean aircraft to a high standard.  That said, Paul Pottinger, infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington says:  “I advise people to bring their own germicidal wipes to rub down the high touch surfaces, the armrest, meal tray and the button that makes your seat go back……It’s also mighty neighborly to offer one of those wipes to the person you’re sitting next to.”

The air vent is a powerful aid in keeping droplets away.  Jonathan Fielding, professor of public health and pediatrics at UCLA says, “The air in the plane blower has been filtrated, which can remove more than 99% of dust and microbes in the air. By having the vent blow on you, you create an invisible air barrier around you that creates turbulence – simultaneously blocking any droplets that may have viruses within them and forcing them down to the ground.”

Valid Concerns

The Covid virus (like many other viruses) appears to affect the elderly or those with certain pre-existing medical conditions.  Therefore, if you or anyone you’re traveling with is elderly or has a lung or other medical condition, then please seek medical advice.

Air travel potentially transports infectious people from one country to another, but the same holds true for trains and ships. And it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the world will return to the days of a less mobile population.  Increased hygiene on all forms of public transport appears to be a more realistic aim.

How to protect yourself

All travel poses some risks.  Self-isolation at home

The stale air ‘myth’ in aircraft cabins appears to be ‘fake news’.

Stay calm and do your research.  During uncertain times, we urge our fellow safari lovers to make a rational judgement based on facts, not hype. The Centre for Disease Control website shows the risks by country with up-to-date information on COVID-19. Simply look for your destination on the interactive world map to check out the CDC website for the latest warnings and precautions.

Experts at the WHO have produced a short Q&A clip on how to protect yourself when travelling during the coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak. Much of it is common sense, the same precautions as you would take when going to the supermarket or catching a train.  They debunk many of the myths and rumours surrounding travel.

Then if travel to the destination is deemed safe, and no other health concerns exist, take the normal necessary precautions which you would do if travelling during flu or cold season.

Thoughts on whether to fly or not

So, although at the end of the day it’s a personal decision whether to continue with your travel plans, the facts appear to show that travel by air is more than likely safer than by bus or train.  As long as there is no outright travel ban in place, no existing health concerns, and travellers take the necessary precautions.

More links to our research and useful websites below.

And then if you decide to make the great escape, you may well have the plane (and safari) to yourself!

Check the following before travelling:

Coronavirus: what’s the risk of flying: A BBC reality check By Rachel Schraer – looking at public transport, trains, buses and planes.

What to do if you are boarding a plane in the age of coronavirus: common sense about personal hygiene from CNBC

Air Quality During Commercial Flights from TripSavvy: an explanation about air filtration systems and recycled air.


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Wherever in the world you are, our Zambezi community is full of easy-going travel-minded friends who take their fun seriously. Come and join the adventure.

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