We are now well into the second summer of COVID-19 and viral transmission is still at the forefront of many people’s minds. Though travel has picked up since this time last year, the unfolding threat of the Delta Variant means that the pandemic is far from gone. All of this uncertainty can throw a wrench into your travel plans, and makes finding the right balance between caution and a sense of normalcy all the more difficult. Though the answer to that question depends on your specific situation and risk level, there are some general guidelines you can follow to protect yourself from bad air quality while you travel.
How clean is airplane air?
With everything that we have learned about COVID-19, it seems that the small enclosed cabins, crowds of people, lack of social distancing and extended flight times make airplanes the perfect storm for transmission. Fortunately, most planes are equipped with air filtration and circulation systems that help them maintain surprisingly high levels of air quality.
While a plane is in flight, the air inside the craft is exchanged between 10 and 30 times each hour. Depending on the type of plane, this can mean exchanging the air in the cabin for the air outside or mixing outdoor air with recirculated air that has passed through a HEPA filter.
The constant filtering and recirculating of the air on planes means that the air you breathe during your flight probably has fewer pollutants than the air in most other indoor spaces, such as restaurants, offices and stores.
What impacts the air quality on planes?
The pandemic has given worldwide attention to the topic of airplane air quality, but some flight attendants and flyers have long had concerns about indoor air pollution on flights. There are a couple of factors that can negatively impact the air quality on an airplane, including the chemicals used onboard and pollution in the outdoor air.
In some countries, it is common to spray airplane interiors with pesticides to prevent the spread of disease-carrying insects from one group of passengers to the next. Usually, planes are treated while empty, and the chemicals should dry by the time passengers board. However, you should be careful not to touch surfaces that are still wet with pesticides when you get on a plane.
Additionally, outdoor air pollution may impact the air quality in the plane cabin, especially in planes that exclusively bring in outside air instead of using HEPA filters. Fortunately, at cruising altitude, the air is mostly free from pollutants that you would find at ground level. The main exception to this is fumes or smoke from the plane engines that can potentially enter the air supply system.
What about airborne SARS-CoV-2 on airplanes?
We have learned during the pandemic that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread through aerosol particles that infected people release when they cough, talk or breathe. While the larger particles settle on surfaces fairly quickly, the smallest can remain in the air. Fortunately, the HEPA filters on planes should capture most of the airborne aerosol particles that transmit COVID-19. Not only that, but they may even be effective at capturing the virus itself.
Note: Airplane air filtration and circulation can be efficient in maintaining good overall air quality during a flight, but the effect is not instantaneous. It still takes time for the air in the cabin to be exchanged with clean air, and it is possible to be exposed to viruses and other pollutants in air that has not yet passed through a filter.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends waiting until you are fully vaccinated to travel. If you are not vaccinated, they recommend getting tested for COVID-19 before and after your trip.
You are still required to wear a mask covering your mouth and nose on all forms of public transportation and transportation hubs, including airplanes and airports. Certain destinations may also require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Your airline will ask to see this information before allowing you to board.
What can affect air quality in airports?
Since air quality in planes is so regulated, you will likely be at a bigger risk for exposure to COVID-19 in the airport than during your flight. Social distancing is not always easy — especially in security lines and crowded baggage claims — and not everybody will be wearing masks. However, you should do what you can to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines while in these areas.
The virus is not the only thing that can affect airport air quality. A 2021 study on air pollution levels in different parts of an airport found that restaurants were the most significant source of particle pollution. Air quality in restaurants and kitchens is often poor due to the pollution caused by cooking. Additionally, air pollution levels directly outside the airport can be high due to emissions from vehicles and planes.
How to not get sick on a plane
Compared to other indoor activities, such as shopping, going to the movies or eating at a restaurant, flying may not pose as elevated an air quality risk. Regardless, one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 while traveling by plane is to keep your mask on as much as possible. This may mean reducing how much you eat or drink while at the airport or on your flight. You should also follow other COVID-19 best practices, such as social distancing and washing your hands frequently, especially before touching your face or taking off your mask.
While there may not be much you can do to protect yourself from other airborne pollutants at the airport, you can reduce your exposure by not spending more time there than is necessary. You can also try booking a nonstop flight instead of a connecting one (if your schedule and budget allow it). While at the airport, you may opt to wait in less crowded areas of the building, away from restaurants or other sources of indoor air pollution.
Beyond the flight itself, you can also improve your air quality when you get to your destination by packing your Molekule Mini or Mini+ in your carry-on bag. Both can easily fit in most luggage and are approved to bring on the plane. Most hotels and private vacation rentals are very focused on cleanliness right now, so an air purifier adds one more layer of protection from exposure to both viruses and lingering cleaning chemicals.
Whether it is for business or pleasure, the last thing you want is for your health to be affected by airborne pollution or viruses when traveling. These tips can help you protect yourself from poor air quality before, during, and after your flight. With a little preparation beforehand and some mindfulness on your travel days, you can set yourself up for a healthy and safe trip.