A recent study concluded that concentrations of microorganisms that might cause illness are no higher in aircraft cabins than in other public areas.
I would like to use this month’s column to address concerns — which rose to new heights of prominence during last year’s SARS epidemic — that the aircraft cabin environment contributes to the spread of disease. Contrary to what you might have read or heard in the media, there is no credible scientific evi­dence today to indicate that infectious disease and respiratory illness spreads among people more often, or more ­easily, on an airplane than in other environments where people are gathered together. There is a widespread belief that colds and other viruses are circulated throughout the cabin via aircraft ventilation systems, but this simply doesn’t jibe with the facts. In fact, a recent study by the National Research Council (NRC) concluded that concentrations of microorganisms that might cause illness are no higher in aircraft cabins — and in many cases are lower — than in other public areas.

That is not to say that you can’t catch something from a fellow traveler. Obviously, any time you are in close proximity to others — at the movies, in church, in an elevator, or even on an airplane — there is a chance of transmitting a communicable disease. However, modern aircraft ventilation systems can help minimize your exposure to the people sitting behind and in front of you. That’s because air typically flows from the ceiling to the floor, without circulating between the front and back of the cabin. Most aircraft fleet types supply a mixture of fresh and recirculated air to the cabin, and a complete air change takes place within minutes. In a typical office, this might happen only once or twice an hour. In addition, recirculated air on most airplanes passes through filters which are very effective at reducing most airborne particles.

Based on all the studies we have seen to date, the aircraft cabin environment is no more likely to foster disease than other indoor public environments. Nonetheless, you may have heard or read about passengers and crew members being routinely exposed to “bad air” in the aircraft cabin. This perception seems to endure based on poorly documented reports of everything from headaches to skin rashes being attributed to cabin air. Of course, it’s only logical that some of the millions of passengers we carry each year will become ill during their trip. But as the recent NRC report acknowledges, there is no substantial evidence to definitively link such symptoms to anything people are exposed to while on an aircraft. We all know that illness during travel can happen for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with airplanes, including the effects of climate change on the body and exposure to contaminants in other public settings, just to name two.

That said, the airlines do indeed have a role to play in the control of disease. We take very seriously our responsibility to help public health officials track and control infectious diseases. The most important thing we can do is to remain vigilant about the health of our passengers and employees. Obviously, anybody with a contagious disease should not be on an airplane. It’s up to all of us to listen to our doctors and use common sense in deciding whether to fly or stay home. Additionally, while our people are not qualified to make medical diagnoses at the gate, there are well-established procedures they can and do draw upon to bring medical attention to sick passengers and crew, and report any communicable diseases to public health officials.

There is nothing more important to us than the well-being of our customers and employees — and we are working hard to ensure that the aircraft cabin is a safe and healthy environment. So I hope you will breathe easy, and enjoy a safe and healthy trip. Thank you for flying with us.

Picture of Gerard Arpey

President & CEO
American Airlines