Skip to content

How far can airborne covid germs really spread on a plane?

May 26, 2020
5 min read
How far can airborne covid germs really spread on a plane?
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The air inside a plane cabin is essentially clean — unless, of course, someone in the next seat sneezes in your direction.

That's what experts want you to know as you think about flying again as coronavirus-related restrictions on travel ease.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, people wondered if breathing recycled air at 35,000 feet exposed a person to more germs than they'd encounter walking down the street. And now, during this historic disease outbreak, those concerns seem only to be magnified.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more aviation news.

Some people are already in the habit of wiping down tray tables and other surfaces in their personal seating bubble on board, and airlines are now going out of their way to make sure passengers have the supplies necessary to carry out their own cleaning routines if they choose.

But to the question about air quality: Is the air you breathe on a plane really more likely to make you sick than air on the ground?

It's complicated, according to R. Eric Jones, an associate professor and chair of the Aviation Maintenance Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But the short answer is: The air onboard is clean.

Related: How radically could air travel change? These questions from Delta offer some insights.

"I would say that sitting in an aircraft cabin is probably a lot like sitting in a movie theater," Jones said. Planes, even those decades-old ones nearing the end of their working lives, are designed to have air quality on board similar to what passengers are used to on the ground.

Achieving that is done by continually drawing in air from outside the cabin, forcing it through HEPA filters to remove most particles and germs, and then pushing it out of the cabin in a matter of minutes.

Robert W. Mann, an aviation analyst based outside of New York City, agreed with Jones. "I would be less concerned about cabin air (the recirculated portion of which is cycled through HEPA filters) than the hygieneity of cabin surfaces, armrests and tray tables, and anything in the lavs, particularly," Mann said in an email. "A good wipe down between flights and occupancies would help."

According to Japanese carrier ANA, cabin air is refreshed roughly every three minutes.

Cabin airflow graphic. (Image courtesy of ANA)
(Image courtesy of ANA)

So onboard air is recycled pretty regularly. It also flows through the cabin essentially from ducts in the ceiling down to vents near the floor. That means that the cabin air circulates in a way that makes it difficult for airborne germs to spread between passengers — unless your seat neighbor rudely sneezes directly onto you, or participates in some other similarly inappropriate and unsanitary behavior.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), seats on many airplanes can act as physical barriers between you and the passengers seated in other rows. They're mostly tall enough, IATA officials said during a media briefing earlier this month, to prevent droplets from spreading between rows. Essentially, they act as a blocking agent similar to the plexiglass shields that many airlines and airports are installing at check-in and gate counters.

Cabin airflow graphic 2. (Image courtesy of ANA)
(Image courtesy of ANA)

But that doesn't mean airplanes are totally germ-free either. So passengers should still take some health precautions when they're traveling.

“You’ve got people that are in highly condensed areas, that are sitting inches apart," Jones said. “Colds, flu, any virus is going to transmit in that environment, but airlines and commercial and business operators, as a result of COVID, are taking very extreme measures to try to sanitize that environment as best they possibly can."

Related: Denied boarding after a temperature check? Here are your rights.

Though he emphasized that he's not not an infectious-disease expert, Jones pointed out that the real risk of catching something on a plane seems to come from proximity to other passengers or coming into contact with a contaminated surface, not because of the quality of cabin air.

“For me, the cabin air, I’m much more comfortable with than I would be going through a TSA line. I would probably be more worried about eating at an airport restaurant," Jones said, pointing out that surfaces in the airport or bins at the TSA checkpoint may be sanitized less regularly than aircraft interiors.

Read more: Please give us your attention as we explain the safety features of your inflight briefing.

And while airlines are going to great lengths to assure passengers that they're stepping up cleaning procedures, Jones said he still worries more about surfaces on board than the air in the plane.

"I cannot speak to the cleanliness of a cabin for contact spread," he said

Mann added that cabin air quality ranks low on his list of aviation-related health concerns.

"More than air and surfaces, my concern would be the health status of passengers in close proximity. Until we all have a way of knowing and ensuring that we are all free of transmittable disease, this will probably be a concern."

Featured image by (Photo by Emily McNutt / The Points Guy)

TPG featured card

Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 6X points
6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 100,000 points75,000 points
Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

Annual Fee

$125

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees