Five things you need to know about health & air travel

It’s all about air flow

Take off You’re packed into a narrow seat at close quarters with hundreds of people breathing the same air in an enclosed metal tube hurtling through the sky at 35,000 feet. It’s a recipe for disease transmission, isn’t it? Actually, according to scientists, you’re better off in a plane than in a classroom or a movie theatre.

It’s certainly a common perception to regard aircraft as a hotbed of infectious germs, and one that gained strength after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden declared on NBC’s ‘Today Show’: “When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft.” Scientific studies contradict that myth, as does the fact that nearly 2 billion people travel by air each year without major outbreaks of infection.

Here are some facts and advice designed to lessen your fears and minimize your risks.

  1. Scientists say the ventilation systems on modern aircraft may actually reduce the risk of exposure to disease compared with other crowded places. Airliners, unlike many buildings, get about half their air from outside the plane and use efficient HEPA filters. Experts say the design of the air system in a plane minimizes exposure compared with other densely populated places like movie theatres or classrooms.
  2. Air enters the cabin from the top, and ventilation systems direct air flow from top to bottom, where the air exits through grilles in the floor. This process helps localize the coughing and sneezing of passengers around you. While it isn’t scientifically proven, some doctors recommend training the overhead air nozzle on the space in front of you, rather than on you, to help ‘blow away’ any stray microbes.
  3. The air in a jetliner is dry because it isn’t humidified. According to doctors, the first line of defence against disease transmission is moist mucous membranes in eyes, nose and mouth. Low humidity may cause airline passengers to touch their faces more, raising the risk of infection. To stay well-hydrated, the best action is to consume plenty of non-alcoholic, decaffeinated beverages and water.
  4. Wash your hands regularly during the flight as you may come into contact with contaminated surfaces whilst moving around the cabin. A waterless hand-sanitizer is a good alternative. During a flu outbreak, travellers may want to use sanitizing wipes to wipe down tray tables and seat buckles.
  5. In the future, developing technologies could eventually help further prevent the spread of diseases on airplanes, through innovations like sensors that can detect biological contaminants and purification systems that can step up purification levels when needed.

Photo Credits: Antoski photo, melhi

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.