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An Overview on the Air Quality on Board Airplanes



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While airlines may lead people to think that air quality is acceptable on their flights, an overview on the air quality on board airplanes will reveal the truth, which may be surprising.

Long History of Air Quality Issues on Board Planes

In 1979, 72 passengers onboard a flight to Kodiak, Alaska were stricken with influenza just hours after the plane landed at its destination. The contaminated air of the airplane was determined to be the source of the illness of the passengers. The article “Healthy Dose of Advice for Long Flights,” published in the Orlando Sentinel also told of the 1986 flight from San Francisco to Hawaii where nearly one-fourth of the passengers and flight crew aboard the plane were sickened with symptoms of headaches and nausea. In that incident, poor quality of the cabin air that was recirculated through dirty filters was the culprit.

In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues a warning that if a passenger on board a plane was ill with tuberculosis, other passengers could be at risk for contracting the disease.

According to “Frequent Flyer Special Report: Air Quality in Airplane Cabins,” published in Achoo Allergy, a 2001 Congressional report by the National Academies’ Research Council concluded that the poor air quality in airplane cabins can cause a wide range of potential health problems, ranging from respiratory and skin conditions, among passengers as well as flight crew members. At high altitudes, according to the article, ozone can cause problems. Ozone issues can cause respiratory problems, being that it can irritate the lungs and cause symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pains. Oxygen levels on board planes can also cause health-related problems for passengers with heart conditions. Air filters cannot capture all the germs that are filtered through the recycled air

The U.K. Scotsman reported in the March 28, 2011 article “Ex-Pilot Claims Poor Air Quality on Planes Makes People ‘Seriously Sick’” that a former pilot claimed that Australian Pilot Dr. Susan Michaels asserted that people become “seriously sick” from the poor quality of air on airplanes, and that she herself quit her job due to what she stated was illness caused by exposure to toxic fumes on planes. In response, a spokesperson for British Airlines Pilots Association called the issue of sickness due to toxic air aboard planes as “controversial.”  

With significant history of documented and alleged air quality issues aboard planes, passengers may wonder what they can do to protect themselves and lessen the chances they will suffer illness related to air quality.

Taking Action

The dryness of air inside the cabin of airplanes is a well-recognized problem. It is important that passengers make sure they are well hydrated both before and during flights, particularly during long flights. Staying hydrated will reduce the likelihood of becoming ill aboard the plane.

To minimize exposure to diseases or illnesses that other passengers are already suffering from and to reduce potential for inhaling contaminants from the air inside the cabin, passengers may want to wear a mask while on board the airplane. Other measures such as taking extra vitamin C or purchasing products specifically made to reduce the chances of illness while flying are excellent measures to take to avoid or at least reduce your chances of suffering the ill effects of poor air quality on planes. Passengers may want to become involved in efforts to push for cleaner air aboard airplanes.

Smarter Travel referred to a 2009 Chicago Tribune article that due to many passenger complaints, airlines were starting to take note of passenger demands for cleaner cabins. Researching which airlines are more frequently in the news or cited as sources for air quality illnesses will help in determining which airlines you may want to avoid when booking a flight. Calling the airlines or reporting illnesses caused by poor air quality to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are all measures that passengers can take to ensure better air quality aboard airplanes.

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