Experts reassure maskless airline travelers on air quality


Facemasks, required, during the COVID-19 pandemic, are now optional on many airlines.

(NewsNation) — As Americans are taking off their masks on airplanes, many are wondering just how safe the air around them is.

Aviation analysts tell NewsNation that even maskless, you’re probably a lot safer on that flight than in most other indoor spaces.

Right now across the country, it’s a patchwork of mask rules depending on where you are and how you’re getting there.

In many instances, whether to wear a mask or not is largely being left up to individual travelers. And many travelers are divided.

“I think it should have been done months ago,” said one traveler.

“I wanna wear it because I want to protect my family,” said another.

The risks on different forms of transportation vary. But within the confined space of a cramped airplane cabin, there is a different level of concern. Still, there is some science that is very reassuring to air travelers.

According to a Boeing aircraft air quality study, and in fact multiple studies in partnership with the Department of Defense, “airborne particles spread less within commercial airplanes than in conventional indoor places — like homes, offices or businesses.”

Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University, said the air quality of in-cabin environments is quite good.

“The good thing about these studies is that they’re done with data to show that the air filtrates multiple times per minute. You have newer aircraft being introduced that have enhanced airflow capability. And that’s quite different than, say, you’re in a pub or a restaurant where you don’t have that same movement.”

According to Schwieterman, “During the worst of the crisis, they (airlines) were well-positioned to make the case that you’re safer on that flight than most other places.”

Dr. Babak Javid, a physician-scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, also says air filtration on planes is generally excellent, but boarding and exiting a plane can put people close together in spaces with poor ventilation.

In Chicago, for example, at O’Hare airport you are required to wear a mask, but on the plane it’s optional. This seems counterintuitive to some people, except when you explain that the risk is actually higher in the terminal.

“The real variable that affects the safety is that air movement. We’re looking at an airport terminal, it’s much harder to have consistent airflow at every pocket, every corner of the gate and concessionaires,” he said. “On the airplane is a different experience where you have a design that’s required to have pressurization and airflow really at all points (in) the cabin to make it a comfortable experience.”

Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said planes can carry the virus from place to place, but that we should be focusing more on big indoor events such as concerts and sporting events — even large weddings — where people get together and talk, shout and sing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that people mask up indoors while traveling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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