United Airlines announced that the carrier will now maximize air flow volume for all mainline aircraft high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems during the entire boarding and deplaning process, helping further reduce the spread of COVID-19. In combination with the HEPA filters, the air conditioning and pressurization system onboard United’s mainline aircraft recirculates the air every 2-3 minutes and removes 99.97% of particles – including viruses and bacteria during both ground and air operations – making the air onboard a plane significantly cleaner than what people typically experience in restaurants, grocery stores, schools or even some hospitals. United pilots and ground staff are working to implement this new procedure for mainline aircraft beginning July 27.

“We know the environment on an aircraft is safe and because the air flow is designed to minimize the transmission of disease, the earlier we maximize air flow over our HEPA filtration system, the better for our crew and our customers,” said Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive officer. “The quality of the air, combined with a strict mask policy and regularly disinfected surfaces, are the building blocks towards preventing the spread of COVID-19 on an airplane. We expect that air travel is not likely to get back to normal until we’re closer to a widely administered vaccine – so we’re in this for the long haul. And I am going to keep encouraging our team to explore and implement new ideas, new technologies, new policies and new procedures that better protect our customers and employees.”

On commercial aircraft, fresh air flows downward into the cabin from ceiling vents and exits the cabin at the floor and sidewalls. That air is then routed through the HEPA filters and mixed with fresh, outside air before returning back to the cabin. According to Boeing, that top-to bottom pattern, and frequent air exchange helps minimize front-to-back air movement and reduces the potential for spread of contaminants from people, such as through sneezing or coughing. The system replaces the entire volume of cabin air every 2-3 minutes by providing 50% HEPA filtered, recirculated air mixed with 50% outside air, which allows a constant flow of either fresh or HEPA filtered air throughout the cabin. In addition, United has been partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study how effectively the unique airflow configuration onboard an aircraft can prevent the spread of aerosolized particles among passengers and crew.  

During a review of its cleaning and safety procedures United identified new opportunities during boarding and deplaning to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Already, the airline boards passengers back-to-front and deplanes five rows at a time. The new air filtration procedure on mainline aircraft will maximize air flow volume and recirculation of cabin air for passengers from the moment they step onboard.

United was one of the first airlines in the country to mandate that everyone onboard wear a face covering, providing complimentary masks to any customer or employee who needs one. When worn properly, face coverings prevent particles from one passenger’s respiratory system from getting into the air and then potentially infecting others. Customers who do not comply with United’s policy risk having their travel benefits suspended.

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