South Africa’s Minister of Transport said last week that filters on airplanes can “eat any form of virus, including COVID-19.” Shortly after, one Twitter user turned the official’s comments into a remix, adding a beat to the video of his speech.
“People ask why we are operating at 100 percent capacity on flights. It’s because planes can absorb disease. Planes are fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Air-Filters (HEPA). The plane is not a taxi. You fly for, say, two hours and you are compressed. The filter can eat any form of virus, including COVID-19,” Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said.
In March, South Africa introduced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus. President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed a ban on alcohol and cigarette sales, prohibited dog walking, and suspended commercial flights for weeks.
Following months of restrictions, Mbalula announced that as of July 1, recreational flights – with some caveats – would be allowed and six airports reopened.
“These are very technical issues,” he said of the air filtration systems. “And since we reopened, there’s been no coronavirus cases linked to flying. You are better protected on a plane than you are anywhere else.”
While his comments were mocked by some on social media, Mbalula wasn’t necessarily wrong with his claim about planes eating viruses, as planes have advanced air filtration systems, and information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” But maintaining social distancing on flights operating at 100 percent capacity is practically impossible, which the CDC warned is of greater issue.
The most efficient HEPA filters are capable of capturing nearly 100 percent of particles, and all large commercial aircraft built after the late 1980s include systems to recirculate cabin air, a study on tuberculosis and air travel published on the National Institutes of Health website read.
“Between 10% and 50% of the cabin air is filtered, mixed with outside conditioned bleed air from the engine compressors and then reintroduced into the passenger cabin. Depending on the type of aircraft, air may be recirculated throughout the entire cabin or only within limited zones,” the study read.
The authors continue, “No evidence has been found that microbial contamination of cabin air entails a greater risk of disease transmission aboard a commercial aircraft than in any other public setting.”
But the CDC warned: “However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Globally, as flights gradually resume, airlines are grappling with how to maintain the recommended six feet of social distancing between passengers, and the CDC said in their travel advice section: “Being within six feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others.”
The CDC notes that outside of being on the physical plane, air travel requires time spent in security lines and airport terminals where there are a lot of frequently touched surfaces and people.
Even in planes, armrests and other surfaces may be breeding grounds for germs and diseases, like the novel coronavirus. There have been studies that suggest COVID-19 can live for hours to days on some hard surfaces, but there is no definitive knowledge yet on just how long a surface can be contaminated.
Some airlines have said they will more thoroughly clean all hard surfaces, and American media NPR reported that for Alaska Airlines, the cleaning policy now includes seats, overhead air vents, bathroom door handles, window shades and luggage compartment handles.
While planes’ filtration systems make it unlikely that an infected person could infect a passenger at the opposite end of the plane, asymptomatic carriers on the flight could still infect those around them if proper social distancing is not kept, making operating at 100 percent capacity risky.