Airplane air

A small box of Kleenex.

Many people feel sick when they travel by air and come home with a cold or the flu. I was discussing it with a dear friend who is pretty healthy otherwise and who said she always catches something when she flies. So I did some research about the air quality inside aircrafts but I could not find any definitive answer, which to me is often a sign that this is a hot topic. When this happens, I usually turn to my own experience and observations and try to match them or not with what is commonly said. For example, I read that airplane filtration systems are pretty good and use HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters capable of trapping particles as small as 0.1 micrometers. But since the diameter of a flu virus  is between 0.05 and 0.1 µm, you would think it can escape the filter (to be fair, the way HEPA filters work is more complex than a mere sieve, but still, it remains unclear if they can stop all viruses or not). Some people claim that when the plane is on the ground the re-circulation and filtering systems do not function as well as when flying, or are even turned off. On the other hand, airlines assure us that the air inside the aircraft is even better than outside (the outside air is not so great to begin with anyway). What I know is that when I sit in a plane waiting for take off, many times I can smell the fumes from engines. It is pretty strong and last for several minutes, and it does not seem very pure to me. Another unclear statement is that there is very little dehydration happening during a flight, it is only our ”perception’’ that we are dehydrated: all well and good, but I know that the few days following a several-hour flight, my skin is terribly dry and I am very thirsty. Or is it that I have the perception that I am thirsty and I am imagining that I am drinking those big bottles of water?

For the sake of the argument and to make it simple and practical, let’s make the assumption that the air is well re-circulated in an aircraft and quite clean. But the simple fact that we all have to sit so close to each other for many hours makes our chances to get sick higher. Add to this that we are more vulnerable to illnesses because of tiredness, jet lag, bad food and stress from going through security, and you can see why many people get a cold or other upper respiratory infections when traveling by plane.

Here’s what we can do to minimize the risks:

-Try to avoid the back seats, as the air seems to be worse, sorry, less good at the end of the aircraft.

-Do not touch your face with dirty fingers and wash your hands or disinfect them with a wipe before eating anything (even those endangered free peanuts!).

– A good idea would be to also wipe your tray table.

-Do not use the back pocket to put food, napkins etc. I doubt that those are often cleaned and I see people stuffing them with all kinds of things including used tissues.

-Open your air vent.

-Drink water or light tea. I like a warm beverage as it flushes down potential viruses.