Air quality on flights is due to improve if the European Union agrees to back new safety standards. The fresh push for cleaner air comes as transport companies struggle to convince passengers their services are low risk in the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.
New standards developed by the European Committee on Standardisation (CEN) over the course of the last five years aim to prevent plane passengers from being exposed to engine oil and hydraulic fumes during flight.
A majority of aircraft compress air in their engines and then pump it into the plane, in order to preserve cabin pressures. This causes low-level contamination with engine fumes, which can reach higher levels if planes are not maintained properly.
This has been standard operating procedure on commercial airliners for more than 60 years.
Representatives from the airline and manufacturing industries, passenger groups, and trade unions collaborated on the standard. In a statement, they said that it “represents what can be accomplished when experts from every side of the issue collaborate within a structured and balanced framework”.
The new criteria would ensure that ventilation systems flood aircraft cabins with enough air so as to prevent the build-up of odors or contaminants, such as carbon dioxide, and sets a minimum airflow rate to achieve that.
CEN still needs to finalize the standard, which the European Commission, Parliament, and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) must then also approve in order for it to become binding.
“We believe that the new standard provides a world-beating reference on how to manage the issue of contaminated air on aircraft and […] stands above current standards regulation,” the statement added.
The Commission could decide to adopt it into the bloc’s existing aviation regulations if officials conclude that the standard will help regulate the single market more effectively. It would also likely satisfy ‘better regulation’ policy-making, as the work has essentially been done already.
COVID mile-high club
Although the CEN standard is geared towards preventing engine fume contamination, it should streamline maintenance procedures and reduce costs for airlines to make sure their air quality systems are up to code.
It is a well-timed development, given the uncertainty surrounding various forms of travel and the possible risk of contamination by the coronavirus, which is currently resurgent in much of Europe and other regions of the world.
The aviation industry, hard-hit by virus lockdown and quarantine measures, has in recent months gone to great lengths to reassure passengers still in the market for air travel that planes are a safe way to get from point A to point B.
Testing by the United States Transportation Command (US Transcom) earlier this month showed that on board modern aircraft “the overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low”.
The study concluded that aerosol particles are quickly diluted by the process of frequent air exchange and actually are detectable only for six minutes. US Transcom insists that is a refresh rate 15 times faster than standard home ventilation and much quicker than in hospitals.
Other transport providers have also tried to restore faith in their services. Train companies like Germany’s Deutsche Bahn say that there is “little or no evidence” that contamination occurs on long-distance services when proper protocols are followed.
According to the International Association for Public Transport (UITP), research shows that buses, metros, trains, and trams are safe so long as they are regularly cleaned, well-ventilated and passengers wear masks.
Contact tracing reveals that in France, where record numbers of cases are being reported day by day, only 1.2% of infections can be linked to public transport. In Germany, the rate is even lower.
A fresh batch of testing is ongoing in London’s underground system, one of the busiest and most extensive in the world, to see how the virus behaves. A similar study in July found the likelihood of catching COVID on the tube was about 1 in 11,000.
“Since September, the infection rate in the community has increased and there has been a substantial increase in cases. This means the assumptions made and the numbers used in these calculations would be different, with an increase in the overall risk,” researchers said.
But virologists are not completely in agreement about the risks posed by public transport.
Hitoshi Oshitani says that New York’s transit systems are safe so long as people are masked and avoid talking, while Belgium’s Marc Van Ranst has warned that overcrowded buses and metros should be avoided as much as possible.