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All you need to know about airplane air filters and cleaning systems on board

We know that travel is especially difficult right now. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you'll be ready.

Now more than ever, the importance of clean air on a plane is a deciding factor in flying. If you have a reason to fly during these times but you’re not sure if it’s safe, knowing about airplane filters and cleaning schedules between flights might help put you at ease.

How clean is the air on airplanes?

Did you know that the air you breathe on a plane is actually a lot cleaner than the air you breathe indoors on land? The air quality on planes may not be as pure as getting out to nature, but it’s better than the air you breathe in cafés, restaurants, or supermarkets.

This is because of the efficient air circulation systems and HEPA filters that are found on most modern commercial flights.

According to the National Geographic, 40% of the cabin’s air is recycled through this system while 60% is taken from outside. On most planes, the air in the cabin is completely replaced every three minutes.

What does HEPA stand for?

HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air and is a common type of filter used on planes.

What they do is essentially remove any impurities in the air, no matter how small. A NY Times report and a NASA study show that this includes the tiny Covid-19 microns.

In fact, in NASA research, HEPA filters remove impurities of that size with a 99.97% efficiency.

How does the HEPA airplane filter system work?

To put it simply, a HEPA filtration system is like a fine mesh strainer.

When you’re baking, you might sift your flour to make sure that all the clumps and impurities don’t contaminate your cake.

HEPA filters are similar to a strainer. They sift the air and block anything that shouldn’t be there. So potentially contagious air would go into the filter and clean air would come out. The impurities remain on the filter and need to be cleaned regularly.

Airplane filters bring in most of their air from outside
What filters the air on a plane? HEPA filtration systems

Which airlines use HEPA air filtration systems onboard?

Most of the major airlines around the world use HEPA filtration systems on their flights. While we can’t list all of them, here are some of the key names that do have HEPA onboard.

Air Canada uses “hospital-grade” HEPA filters which the airline claims “removes at least 99.9%” of all airborne particles (including viruses) in the air by capturing and filtering them.

The same goes for all aircraft with WestJet, Air Transat, and Sunwing.

Other major airlines like United, Delta, and Turkish Airlines also use hospital-quality HEPA filters on all of their aircraft.

How is the airplane cabin cleaned between flights?

Aircraft cabins are given a simple clean during normal times. The crew remove trash, wipe down surfaces, and vacuum the floor of the aircraft. But many airlines around the world have stepped up their sanitation practices in recent months.

As well as state-of-the art airline filters, cabins are being cleaned regularly
Is the air filtered on a plane?

One of the first steps to improve sanitation practices was to increase the strength of the cleaning fluid. Canadian airlines like Air Canada implemented a CleanCare+ system and are using an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer that has proven to be effective against a host of bacteria and viruses. They have also removed in-flight reading material, and all newspapers and magazines can be read in digital form on PressReader.

Singapore Airline has also stated that it changes headrest covers, pillow covers, and blankets between every flight. Airlines such as Korean Air removed pillows and blankets entirely.

Other simple steps have also been taken to reduce the chance of contamination on a flight. EVA Air, for instance, has removed the hot towel service that has been a staple of its flights for many years, as well as communal reading material.

What other precautions should I take while flying?

All airlines are encouraging passengers to wear face masks on flights, and a lot of airlines are making it mandatory (unless you’re eating or drinking). For most long-haul flights, you will be provided with a face mask but you may find it more comfortable to wear one that you’re more familiar with.

Wearing masks on a flight is important at the moment
Face masks are required by many airlines in 2020

Like when you’re on the ground, you should always wash/sanitize your hands regularly, stay at least two metres away from people as best you can, and try to touch your face as little as possible.

If you find yourself feeling a little sick, particularly if you have a cough and/or a fever, you should refrain from flying.

It’s also a good idea to check what precautions are in place when you arrive. Many countries at the moment have self-isolation or quarantine periods that all travellers need to follow upon arrival. If you’re only planning a short trip for business, this may make your time away unrealistic.

With a lot of uncertainty in the air about overseas travel right now, it’s always good to have some certainty in your life. Airplane air filters and other measures brought in by the major airlines have made planes some of the safest places to be during the pandemic — but you still need to keep an eye on government advice to make sure you’re travelling safely.

Airplane air filters: FAQs

What does HEPA stand for?

HEPA is High Efficiency Particulate Air. It’s a way to remove tiny particles (such as bacteria and viruses) from the air.

Do you get fresh air on a plane?

Yes. Airplane’s are constantly bringing in fresh air from outside the cabin. On average, the entirety of the cabin’s air is replaced every three minutes.

What is the dirtiest thing on an airplane?

Studies have shown that the dirtiest item on a plane tends to be the tray table. However, during the pandemic, airlines have increased their cleaning schedule between flights. If you’re still unsure, bring your own wipes and clean your table before use.

Do airplane air filters remove viruses?

HEPA filters on airplanes have been shown to be 99.97% effective at removing virus particles the size of Covid-19.

Do all airplanes have HEPA filters?

Not every plane does — particularly small aircraft — but modern planes used for long-haul flights should all have HEPA filters installed as standard.

Want to read more?

  • Coronavirus Travel Advice: We’re continually keeping this page up-to-date regarding the current outbreak of COVID-19 and what that means for your travel plans. So whether you need it now, or in the near future, it could be worth a bookmark.
  • Coronavirus travel questions: Your COVID-19 queries answered: Are you dreaming about your next trip but still have many travel questions on your mind? To help, Skyscanner’s panel of experts has answered some of the most commonly asked COVID-19 queries. It’s important to have all the information you need to make the right decisions for you.
  • Is it safe to travel right now? The world is slowly opening up again, but as many restrictions loosen across the world, it’s not always easy to know what you can and can’t do. It’s not enough to know whether it’s safe to fly, or whether hotels are accepting guests. Travellers want to know if it is safe to travel, full stop.
  • 9 tips for safe road trips during COVID: As Canadians look to their own backyard for their vacations in 2020, an interest in road trips during COVID is at an all-time high! There’s no freedom quite like exploring the world with your own set of wheels, stopping wherever you like for however long you like.