Generating PDF

Air Travel Remains a Safe Way to Travel During COVID-19; Advanced HEPA Filters Constantly Clean the Air Onboard, Limiting the Risk of Virus Transmission and Providing a Safe Environment

By  Brussels, — Last updated on 8 December 2023
  • Additional measures, including temperature checks, must be undertaken and supported by national authorities to facilitate a low-risk travel environment.
  • Passengers should bring and wear their own face masks throughout the journey.
  • Physical separation on planes — including leaving middle seats free — is unnecessary and ineffective as a further protective measure, given the efficient air filtration and clean cabin environment.
  • A global approach is needed to ensure consistent standards are applied across the air transport sector.


A4E, representing the interests of Europe’s 16 largest airlines and airline groups and flying 720 million passengers per year, today reiterated that air travel remains one of the safest modes of transport during a public health crisis, with a very low risk of virus transmission onboard. The majority of commercial aircraft are equipped with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which were also in use during the SARS epidemic. These advanced filters continuously clean the air onboard — which is then replaced on average every three minutes. As a result, the air in the cabin is comparable with the sterile environment of a hospital operating theatre. Research by leading national and European research institutes European Centres for Disease Control; Robert Koch institute (Germany) as well as IATA and confirms that there is little evidence supporting passenger-to-passenger transmission of the COVID-19 virus onboard an aircraft — even without additional protective measures in place. A4E is nevertheless recommending that all passengers wear their own face masks throughout the journey, in order to protect other passengers.

“By bringing your own sufficient supply of face masks, passengers can mitigate any remaining risk of residual infection on board”, said Thomas Reynaert, Managing Director, of Airlines for Europe (A4E).

Additional protective measures, such as temperature checks, should be undertaken and supported by national authorities to facilitate an overall low-risk travel environment for both passengers and crew members.

“There is nothing more important than assuring the safety of our passengers and crew during this global pandemic. Fortunately, airlines have experience and know there is already a very low risk of virus transmission onboard. Any form of physical distancing is unnecessary, ineffective and simply impractical given the same desired result can be achieved by wearing face masks in an already sterile cabin environment”, Reynaert added.

Physical separation on board — including leaving middle seats free — is also not viable for the air transport industry given it would reduce the maximum number of passengers onboard to between 50–66 per cent of aircraft capacity. Due to high operating and other fixed costs, airlines require planes to be at least 77 per cent full in order to break even.

As airlines begin a gradual return to service, national and EU authorities must pursue a global and coordinated approach to health and safety measures both in the air and on the ground — with consistent standards across the sector.

Notes to Editor:

According to IATA, there are several plausible reasons why COVID-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission and is different from other modes of public transport, including:

  1. Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions;
  2. Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin;
  3. Air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin, moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments
  4. HEPA filters in modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.