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Flying into the flu season

Airlineflu
A woman sleeps on a nearly vacant American Airlines flight from Miami to Mexico City during an outbreak of the H1N1 flu in April. Credit: Brennan Linsley/Associated Press.
Television news shows and newspaper headlines scream about the potential dangers of the swine flu, also known as H1N1, and there you are, contemplating a trip for the upcoming holidays.

So, you ask yourself: Am I safe from airborne germs in the confined cabin of a crowded passenger jet?

In the past few months, the topic of air quality on airplanes has come up repeatedly, most noticeably when Vice President Joe Biden told a television audience last spring that he was advising family members to avoid confined spaces such as airplanes and subways for fear of contracting the flu from a sneezing passenger.

Airlines have straddled the line between taking big, noticeable steps to quell passenger fears and underplaying the threat to avoid sparking a panic.

For example, airports from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have placed alcohol-based hand sanitizing lotion in dispensers in high traffic areas. Many airlines are also wiping down the interior of the planes with strong disinfectant between flights.

Southwest Airlines has removed all pillows and blankets — potential germ traps — from daytime flights.

Virgin America has added sanitizing gel and antibacterial wipes on its planes.

But don’t panic, says the Air Transport Assn. of America, the trade group that represents most major airlines. You are at no greater risk breathing the air inside an airplane cabin than you are in a crowded office or theater, the group says.

David A. Castelveter, ATA’s spokesman, said studies show that passenger cabins are not a breeding ground for pathogens and that most passengers are not worried about catching a disease while flying.

“The myth is that you are more susceptible to influenza if you get on a plane,” he said. “That is not the case.’’

Medical research seems to support Castelveter. A 2005 report in the Lancet, a widely read medical journal, concluded that “the environmental control system used in commercial aircraft seems to restrict the spread of airborne pathogens, and the perceived risk is greater than the actual risk.”

The air supply system in a passenger plane draws air through the engines. The air is heated, cooled and --in many cases  -- passed through a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter before it is pumped into the cabin. Most commercial aircraft recirculate 50% of the air, while the other 50% comes fresh from the exterior.

The Lancet study found no evidence that the air supply systems can spreading germs and pathogens throughout an airplane cabin.

But the Lancet report and other medical studies on the subject also caution that the air filtration system can’t save you if you are seated within a few feet of a coughing, sneezing, influenza-spewing passenger — the exact scenario that keeps Joe Biden awake at night.

To combat such a scenario, airlines urge passengers to stay home if they feel ill. Don’t worry about losing out on the cost of an airline ticket, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, the world’s largest airline. If you miss your flight because of illness, he said, the airline will work with you to recover the cost. (You may have to produce a note from your doctor, he added.)

But if a coughing, sneezing passenger takes a seat next to you, the airline attendants can move that passenger to another part of the plane or offer the passenger an influenza mask.

“Our employees are watching passengers for flu-like symptoms and if someone potentially has H1N1, we will bring that passenger to the attention of our medical professionals. We will take action,” said Castelveter.

In the midst of all this talk about airborne germs, a British company, BAE Systems, recently unveiled a new air-management system for airplanes that it claims will kill 99.99% of bio-hazards and particles. The AirManager system uses an electrical field that breaks down and destroys airborne pathogens, contaminants and toxins, and has been successfully tested on Boeing 757 airliners in Europe, according to a company statement.

Several airlines in the U.S. and Europe have expressed interest in the system, according to a spokesman for BAE Systems, who declined to name the airlines. But so far, none of them are ready to announce a fleet-wide installation of the system.

When asked about BAE’s new system, Castelveter said: “We are very comfortable with the airline systems we have today.”

-- Hugo Martin

 
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