Coronavirus: Planes are ‘relatively safe’ due to powerful air filters, says WHO expert

David Nabarro reassures travellers

Helen Coffey
Monday 13 July 2020 08:43 BST
Planes have advanced air filtration systems says WHO expert

Air travel is “relatively safe” when it comes to the spread of coronavirus, an expert from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for Covid-19, said this was because of modern aircrafts’ air filtration systems.

“So the one good thing about aeroplanes is that the ventilation system includes really powerful filters which means that in our view they are relatively safer,” he told BBC News.

Nabarro added that travellers should respect social distancing rules.

“In general, I would like to ask everybody just to respect the physical distancing norms, but to be perhaps particularly careful in confined settings, especially when there’s singing or shouting,” he said.

Many travellers have the misconception that they are more likely to get ill after a flight because they presume the “same air”, carrying every passenger’s sniffle, sneeze or cough, is getting recycled and pumped around the aircraft.

In fact, modern jets have very advanced ventilation systems, making transmission via the air you breathe onboard unlikely.

“Given the excellent ventilation system on modern commercial aircraft and that the main method of transmission [of respiratory infections] is by direct contact and/or airborne droplet, most risk is isolated to those passengers sitting in the same row or that behind or in front of someone sick,” Dr David E Farnie, medical director of Global Response Centre for MedAire Worldwide, told The Independent.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which has done extensive research on the topic of air transport and communicable diseases, backs up the assertion that people onboard an aircraft are no more likely to fall ill than anyone else in a confined space.

Its fact sheet on Public Health Emergency Preparedness highlights the importance of modern air filters on planes, which “have a similar performance” to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.

“Hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are effective at capturing greater than 99.9 per cent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air,” it states.

The modern cabin air system delivers around 50 per cent fresh air and 50 per cent filtered, recirculated air.

“Air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free,” says IATA.

To find out how to keep safe on public transport, click here.

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