COVID-19 Section 7: Flying and aircraft


Whilst travel between countries has been very much reduced during the pandemic as a result of countries wanting to reduce infected people entering their countries, the act of flying itself presents low likelihood of infections spreading between passengers. This is partly as a result of the design of the ventilation systems of existing aircraft and partly due to the measures taken by aircraft operators, many of which have been mandated by the authorities. 

This section directs people to:

  • the guidance and rules for passengers, operators of aircraft and airports
  • explanations of the design of aircraft systems and how they minimise cross infection
  • research into how infections are spread or reduced on aircraft
  • the technology being developed to further reduce the potential for on-board infection
  • the impact of COVID-19 on the industry

Guidance for air passengers

Guidance and rules for passengers whilst travelling

  • UK Guidance for commercial passengers:
  • IATA – precautions to take while flying
  • Well fitting, good quality mask systems are recommended, see section 5 of this manual.
  • The legal requirements of the standard of masks varies between countries, i.e:
      UK specifies a face covering that covers mouth and nose
      EASA (EU and EFTA) specifies a medical mask (sometimes known as a surgical mask)
      Canada specifies a non-medical mask
      Please refer to individual airlines websites for appropriate rules of mask type and who needs to wear them

Summaries of country travel restrictions/implications for passengers in foreign countries

Guidance for aircraft operators

Guidance for airport operators

How aircraft cabin air systems work and reduce infection likelihood

Pall Corporation’s website has a good description of how aircraft cabin air systems work and in particular the 19 min video on it which describes the pattern of airflow and how HEPA  filters remove contaminants down to very small sizes.

The regulation variously described as 0.28m3/min, 0.25kg/min, 0.55lb/min is for large transport aircraft certified by EASA in Europe or the FAA in America, which are aircraft of greater than 19 seats or greater than 19,000lb maximum take-off weight. Smaller aircraft do not have a mandated ventilation flow and thus likely to have much simpler systems.

There are very few aircraft operating as passenger carrying that are greater than 25 years old, so the vast majority are equipped with HEPA filters. All Airbus aircraft have been equipped with HEPA filters since 1994.

Technology developments

Self-disinfecting lavatory

Boeing has developed a self-disinfecting lavatory prototype that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect all surfaces in about three seconds after every use - killing 99.9% of germs.

Shielding surfaces with anti-microbial coatings

Anti-microbial surfaces make it hard for microbes, such as viruses, to grow. Boeing is evaluating existing products while collaborating with researchers to develop new solutions

Using UV light to sanitise

  • Honeywell have a system available now that can traverse an aircraft cabin in 10 minutes.
  • Boeing developed a portable UV wand specifically designed to inactivate viruses and bacteria on airplanes, which they have now licensed to Healthe to manufacture. The UV wand uses 222 nanometer UVC light. Research indicates 222 nanometer UVC inactivates pathogens effectively. Using the self-contained apparatus that resembles a carry-on suitcase, crews can pass UV light over high-touch surfaces, sanitising everywhere the light reaches. The UV wand is particularly effective in compact spaces and sanitises a flight deck in less than 15 minutes.
  • Etihad Airways was the first to evaluate the device, and the UV wand was demonstrated on the Etihad 787-10 ecoDemonstrator airplane on Aug. 21.

Industry impacts, statistics and forecasts