As flying returns, jetmakers seek to quell fears over cabin air


Jet manufacturers and airlines are launching an urgent initiative to convince nervous travelers that the air they breathe on planes is safe, believing this is critical to rebuilding a travel industry floored by the novel coronavirus.

Boeing has appointed former engineering and development chief Mike Delaney to head wider efforts to build confidence, and Airbus leaders say the industry is moving from an initial crisis phase to securing public trust.

That has triggered, among other things, a concerted effort to explain how cabin air filtration works in a bid to scotch the myth that the pressurised fuselage contains only static or recycled air.

Health officials are still quantifying various sources of transmission for COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, but attention focuses on the risk of catching it from airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing passengers as well as from touching infected surfaces.

The air-travel industry historically talks more about seat pitch than air quality. That’s had to change as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s about explaining what we do for the safety of passengers in the large sense: aircraft safety but also sanitary safety,” Airbus engineering head Jean-Brice Dumont said.

In an office building, air is exchanged about four times every hour. On a modern jet aircraft, that rises to 20 to 30 times.

“The air system on an airplane is as good as anything you will be exposed to,” Delaney said. Air circulation is only one of several techniques for reducing potential for the virus to spread on board including rigorous cleaning of the plane and screening passengers for signs of illness, he added.

In most cases compressed air is fed from the clean part of an engine – untainted by fuel which is added later – to air conditioning packs and from there to fans in the cabin ceiling.

Both planemakers say cabin air pours downwards not lengthways through the fuselage, reducing risks of infection.

Half that air is then recycled through hospital-grade HEPA filters designed to remove some 99.97% of contaminants including viruses. The other half is flushed outside through valves.

Planemakers say cabin air is renewed every two to three minutes, though scientists caution that in reality, air is always a blend. But the quicker the rate, the faster old air is diluted.

“The air turns over very, very quickly in the aircraft in terms of air-exchange rate. From that point of view the aircraft systems are very good,” said Professor Byron Jones of Kansas State University, who has helped recommend air standards.