Now more than ever, the importance of clean air on a plane is a deciding factor in flying. If you have a reason to fly, but you’re not sure if it’s safe, knowing about airplane filters and cleaning schedules between flights might help put you at ease.
How clean is the air on airplanes?
In simple terms, the air you breathe on a plane is almost certainly cleaner than the stuff you’d be breathing indoors on land. It may not be as pure as getting out to nature, but it’s better than the air you breathe in coffee shops, movie theaters or grocery stores.
This is as a result of the efficient air circulation systems and HEPA filters that are found on the majority of modern commercial flights.
According to National Geographic, 40% of the cabin’s air is recycled through this system while 60% is taken from outside. On most planes, the air in the cabin is completely replaced every three minutes.
What does HEPA stand for?
HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air and is a common type of filter used on planes.
What HEPA filters do, essentially, is to remove any impurities in the air, no matter how small. A New York Times report and this NASA study show that this includes tiny COVID-19 microns.
In fact, according to NASA research, HEPA filters remove impurities of COVID size with 99.97% efficiency.
How does the HEPA airplane filter system work?
To explain it in terms anyone can understand, a HEPA filtration system is like a sieve.
When you’re baking, you sift dry ingredient to make sure the clumps and impurities in your flour, sugar and baking powder don’t contaminate the finished cake.
HEPA filters are similar. They sift the air and block anything that shouldn’t be there. Potentially contagious air goes into the filter and clean air come outs. Impurities remain on the filter, which needs to be cleaned or replaced regularly.
Which airlines use HEPA air filtration systems onboard?
Most major airlines use HEPA filtration systems on their flights. While we can’t list all of them, here are some of the key airlines that use HEPA onboard.
Southwest‘s website states that its onboard HEPA systems remove 99.97% of all viruses and bacteria from the air. Secondary US low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant fly aircraft equipped with the same technology.
How is the airplane cabin cleaned between flights?
In normal times, the cabin gets a simple clean. Crews remove trash, wipe surfaces clean and vacuum carpets. Recently, they’ve had to step up their game.
One of the first steps airlines took was to increase the strength of cleaning fluid. Delta opted for a hospital-grade disinfectant that is effective against a host of bacteria and viruses. Others, like United, went with Clorox, whose products have been proven to kill off strains of salmonella and avian flu. Crew wipe down all areas of the cabin, such as the screens, arm rests and tray tables.
American has stated that it changes headrest covers, pillow covers and blankets between every flight. Emirates removes pillows and blankets entirely.
Some airlines take additional steps to reduce the chance of contamination. EVA Air, for instance, has removed the hot towel service that had been a staple of its flights for many years (you get a packaged wet nap instead), as well as communal reading material, which you can now access via the carrier’s free mobile app. EVA Air, which is based in Taiwan, is a great choice if you plan to take a multi-country COVID-era trip through the destinations of Asia once they open.
What other precautions should I take while flying?
Most US airlines now encourage passengers to wear masks on flights—in most cases, these are mandatory, unless you’re eating or drinking. On most long haul flights, airlines provide passengers with a mask (and, in some cases, a face shield or globes), but you may find it more comfortable to wear one that you’re familiar with.
As is the case when you’re on the ground, you should wash your hands regularly (or sanitize them with a solution that’s at least 75% alcohol), keep six feet away from others if possible and try to avoid touching your face–a mask helps with this!
If you feel sick or exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, particularly a cough and/or a fever, you should avoid flying. (NOTE: Airlines are offering unmatched flexibility at this time, so you won’t lose money in the event you need to cancel or postpone your journey at the last time!)
It’s also a good idea to check what precautions are in place at your destination. Many US states and foreign countries have self-isolation or quarantine periods, as Skyscanner describes in detail here. If you’re only planning a short trip for business, this might make you consider a Zoom call instead of a long-weekend work trip!
Given the uncertainty in the air about travel these days, it’s always good to have some certainty in your life. Airplane filters and other measures brought in by major airlines have made planes some of the safest places to be during the pandemic.
FAQs About Air Travel During COVID
HEPA is High-Efficiency Particulate Air. It’s a way to remove tiny particles (such as bacteria and viruses) from the air.
Yes. Airplane’s are constantly bringing in fresh air from outside the cabin. On average, the entirety of the cabin’s air is replaced every three minutes.
Studies have shown that the dirtiest item on a plane tends to be the tray table. However, during the pandemic, airlines have increased their cleaning schedule between flights. If you’re still unsure, bring your own wipes and clean your table before use.
HEPA filters on airplanes have been shown to be 99.97% effective at removing virus particles the size of COVID-19.
Not every plane does—particularly regional aircraft—but modern Airbus and Boeing planes should all have HEPA filters installed as standard.
Although aircraft cleaning crew wipe down HEPA filters after each flight, they will replace the filters outright when they observe a certain level of soiling.
Want to read more?
- Coronavirus Travel Advice: Everything you need to know about staying safe (and sane!) if you travel during COVID-19
- When can I travel to Europe again? Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for Americans to travel to (parts) of Europe during the coronavirus pandemic
- Is it safe to travel? Traveling during a pandemic isn’t inherently safe—but it doesn’t have to be dangerous, as we explain for you in great detail
- 7 tips for safe road trips during COVID: Road trips tend to take you to some of America’s most socially-distanced destinations, but we’ve provided you with some extra tips as well
- Your coronavirus travel questions answered: In the COVID era as anytime else in history, taking off is a lot less scary when you’ve got more answers than questions.