If you’re about to fly somewhere for Thanksgiving, you’re probably dreading the possibility that you’ll catch a bug along the way. And with good reason: Many people come down with something nasty in the days following an airplane flight. Why does this happen, and how can you keep yourself from getting sick?
A couple I met on a plane flight prompted me to find out. I met Tom and Nancy some years back on a trip from Boston to Phoenix. The two of them were on their way to San Francisco to visit with Tom’s sister for the week.
A few seconds after we’d introduced ourselves, the smell of antiseptic drew my attention away from the baggage handlers on the tarmac loading luggage into the belly of the plane; each of my row-mates was armed with a disinfectant wipe. Tom was busy wiping down his tray table, and Nancy had already moved on to dabbing purposefully at her seat’s headrest. I asked if she brought cleaning supplies on all her plane flights.
“Our doctor recommended it to us a few years ago,” she said as she reached for her clutch bag, withdrew a powder-blue face mask and began looping its elastic straps over her ears. “We’ve been bringing wipes on all our plane flights ever since.”
And the mask, I ask her. What is that for? “It’s to help filter the air,” she explained from behind the mask, its pleats expanding slightly as she mouthed-out her word. “The air you’re breathing is being recirculated through the cabin — we’re all breathing one another’s air.
“It’s disgusting,” she concluded as she reached back into her bag and pulled out two more masks. She handed one to Tom and presented the other to me. “Would you like one?”
Do we have to turn into Nancy and Tom to stay healthy on a plane flight? Yes and no.
As it turns out, Nancy and Tom are right to be paranoid about the microscopic bugs that might be crawling around on their tray tables (more on this later), but you might be surprised to learn that their concern over the cleanliness of the cabin’s circulating air supply is largely unfounded.
The idea of a germ-ridden, recycled, in-flight air supply is one of the most widely propagated urban myths about airline sanitation out there. As a result, many people (Nancy, Tom and — until recently — myself included) assume that if so much as one person on their flight is sick with something, everyone on board will have the misfortune of breathing in that person’s germs — all thanks to the cabin’s “recirculated” air supply.
In reality, however, the air you breath on a typical airplane flight is thoroughly clean. Fresh air from outside the plane is continuously drawn into the cabin via what are known as compressor stages in the jet’s engines. These stages compress the very cold and extremely thin air from outside the plane until its pressure matches that of the cabin.
Pressurizing the air also heats it up, so it’s cooled back down before passing through High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters (which remove a minimum of 99.97% of any airborne particulates, bacteria and viruses) and combining with recirculated cabin air.
But there’s that word again. Recirculated.
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