Looking for Clean Air? Look Aloft

James R. Hood
James R. Hood

Even when there’s no pandemic, many people are reluctant to fly because they think the air quality on a crowded, tightly sealed airliner is poor. But researchers in Georgia whose study was supported by Delta Airlines say it’s just not so.

The Georgia Institute of Technology researchers studied air quality in indoor spaces such as stores, restaurants, offices, public transportation — and commercial jets — and found that aircraft cabins had the lowest levels of tiny aerosol particles.

“We wanted to highlight how important it is to have a high ventilation rate and clean air supply to lower the concentration of particles in indoor spaces,” said Nga Lee (Sally) Ng, associate professor at GIT, in a news release. “The in-flight cabin had the lowest particle mass and particle number concentration.”

As scientists learn more about transmission of the coronavirus, the focus has turned to aerosol particles as an important source of viral spread indoors. Infected people can spread the virus as they breathe, talk, or cough, creating particles that can remain suspended in the air. Smaller particles remain suspended longer than larger ones.

Conducted in July 2020, the study included monitoring both the number of particles and their total mass across a broad range of indoor locations, including 19 commercial flights in which measurements took place throughout departure and arrival terminals, the boarding process, taxiing, climbing, cruising, descent, and deplaning. The monitoring could not identify the types of the particles and therefore does not provide a direct measure of coronavirus exposure risk.

The study, believed to be the first to measure both size-resolved particle mass and number in commercial flights from terminal to terminal and a broad range of indoor spaces, has been accepted for publication in the journal Indoor Air and posted online at the journal’s website. Supported by Delta Air Lines, the research may be the first to comprehensively measure particle concentrations likely to be encountered by passengers from terminal to terminal.

“Especially in poorly ventilated spaces, these particles can be suspended in the air for a long period of time, and can travel to every corner of a room,” Ng said. “If they are viral particles, they can infect people who may be at a considerable distance from a person emitting the particles.”

Airline passengers breathe a mixture of outside air and inside air. At cruising altitude, the outside air is largely free of the pollutants that are common near the ground. Recirculated indoor air goes through HEPA filters that remove more than 99% of particles, the researchers said.

In all, the researchers evaluated measurements from 19 commercial flights with passenger loads of approximately 50%. The flights included a mix of short- and medium-length flights, and aircraft ranging from the CRJ-200 and A220 to the 757, A321, and 737.

Overall, the study highlights the importance of improving indoor air quality as a means of reducing coronavirus transmission, Ng said.

“Regardless of whether you are in an office or an aircraft, having a higher ventilation rate and good particle filtration are the keys to reducing the total particle concentration,” said Ng. “That should also reduce the concentration of any viral particles that may be present.”

About the study

Using handheld instruments able to measure the total number of particles and their mass, Georgia Tech researchers examined air quality in a series of Atlanta area restaurants, stores, offices, homes, and vehicles — including buses, trains, and private automobiles. 

They trained Delta staff to conduct the same type of measurements in terminals, boarding areas, and a variety of aircraft through all phases of flight. The Delta staff recorded their locations as they moved through the terminals, and the instruments produced measurements consistent with the restaurants and stores they passed on their way to and from boarding and departure gates.

“The measurements started as soon as they stepped into the departure terminal,” Ng said. “We were thinking about the whole trip, what a person would encounter from terminal to terminal.”

Among all the spaces measured, restaurants had the highest particle levels because of cooking being done there. Stores were next, followed by vehicles, homes, and offices. The average sub-micron particle number concentration measured in restaurants, for instance, was 29,400 particles per cubic centimeter, and in offices it was 2,473 per cubic centimeter. 

“We have quite a comprehensive data set to look at the size distribution of particles across these different spaces,” Ng said. “We can now compare indoor air quality in a variety of different spaces.”

Because of the portable instruments used, the researchers were unable to determine the source of the particles, which could have included both biological and non-biological sources. “Further studies can include direct measurements of viral loads and tracing particle movements in indoor spaces,” she added.

James R. Hood

Jim is a publishing entrepreneur and journalist. He founded ConsumerAffairs in 1998 and earlier was the founder of Zapnews, after holding executive posts at the Associated Press.