Does Air Travel Increase Your Risk for Getting Sick?

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Whenever there is an outbreak of disease—be it SARS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, or now, swine flu—there is an accompanying wave of fear about the myriad ways in which people can put themselves at risk. And, considering air travel confines you to a shared space with a bunch of potentially sick strangers for hours on end, there is some legitimate concern about an increased risk of illness for people who fly. Yet, according to Dr. Russell B. Rayman, executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association, too often people’s fears are overblown. Airplanes certainly aren’t clinically sterile places, he says, but for people paranoid about air travel, he points out that offices are actually more likely hubs for disease transmission than 747s.

Unlike many office spaces, airplanes have three rigid air quality requirements in place, Rayman says. While there is a widespread belief that people are inhaling “recycled air” while aboard a plane, in fact, instead of sharing the air with some 400 fellow passengers, the only people whose air you’re likely to breathe are in your row, or at most, the one or two rows in front or in back of you. That’s because of the side to side air circulation systems in planes (as opposed to front to back), and the fact that fresh air comes in by your head, and is sent out again by your feet, Rayman says. “If anything pathological were in the air, it would be confined to certainly to that row, or at most, it could possibly spread one or two rows in either direction.”

Yet, Rayman says even within the same row it is unlikely for microbes to weave their way along seven or eight seats. And the high efficiency air filters mandated on planes provide another protection for air travelers. Of course, he says, like in any public space there is a risk for exposure to disease when other passengers are ill, and due to the generally large amounts of time people are confined together on aircraft, that risk may be greater than say, standing in line at the pharmacy or hopping on and off the bus. “If you’re in an airplane flying across the Atlantic, you may be sitting next to somebody for a long period of time, which is not necessarily true in a grocery store,” Rayman says. But whatever public arena you’re in, getting sick, particularly with swine flu, is down to proximity to other people. “It’s usually passed by person-to-person contact,” he says. “In other words, coughing and sneezing—that requires a certain physical proximity. So if you’re sitting next to somebody on an airplane, yes, you’re at risk, but you’re also at risk if you’re sitting next to somebody at your office or on a bus,” he says.

And in addition to filtration and horizontal air flow, planes also have stringent requirements for the introduction of fresh air into the cabin—.55 lbs. of fresh air per occupant per minute according to the Federal Aviation Administration, to be precise. (As a side note, the fact that the fresh air is being sucked in from such high altitudes, where there is little moisture in the air, explains why the cabin air is so dry.) “There is a very robust turnover of air into the cabin,” Rayman says, “better than in most buildings.”

While he says that there is too much misinformation about travel safety amid the spread of swine flu—some of which has been spread by our own vice president—Rayman does emphasize that for people who are already sick, avoiding travel is not only best for their own recovery, but it can protect others too. “If you’re considerate of other people and you have a fever or you have the flu, you shouldn’t be flying,” he says. “It’s just common sense.”