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Swine Flu: Aircraft

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that all air in airliners is fresh, in order to reduce the risk of the spread of swine flu.

My Lords, up to half the cabin air is recirculated and mixed before being distributed through the cabin. The air is mixed and passed through high-efficiency particulate air filters, which are 99.97 per cent efficient at removing bacteria, viruses and particulate material. The total volume of cabin air is exchanged every two to three minutes, compared with every five to 10 minutes in most air-conditioned buildings.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Unfortunately, this 99 per cent that he mentions is what the manufacturers say; they say that they construct the filters in such a way that they will filter the viruses. However, they have never tested these filters, which clearly cannot filter viruses out; I personally have inspected them. The problem is that that air is full of all sorts of bugs including tuberculosis and viruses such as swine flu.

My Lords, when somebody as experienced as the noble Lord makes an assertion, it is difficult to deny it. However, I know of no evidence to the effect of what he affirms. I know that I spent 3,500 hours breathing such air, that it is sourced from very clean air—way above the earth most of the time—and that it is heated cooled. It is very good air; the only thing wrong with it is that it is a bit thin and rather dry.

My Lords, there were reports at the weekend that the Health Protection Agency office at Heathrow terminal 1 is to be closed permanently and that the hours of the other Health Protection Agency offices at Heathrow are going to be cut to daylight hours only, or rather from 6 am to 6 pm. I can vouch for the fact that many passengers come in at night—they fly over Kew to come to Heathrow—so can the Minister explain how those passengers who come into this country at night are going to be screened for swine flu or any other infectious disease?

My Lords, I was not aware of the facts as asserted by the noble Baroness. The essence of the prevention measures taken by the airlines lies in observing their passengers, in ensuring that people with any symptoms recognised on the aircraft are isolated and reported to the appropriate authorities and in continuing the appropriate tracking of any passengers adjacent to them. If there is anything that I can add about opening hours at Heathrow, I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, could the Minister tell me, with his experience, whether the circulation of air in airplanes is the only source of possible infection transmission? What about other hygiene measures?

My Lords, the circulation of air is the least likely reason for infection on an aircraft. There is no evidence that the pressurised cabin makes the transmission of disease more likely. Simple viral infections may be transmitted due to the proximity of individuals who may have such conditions. The airline industry has developed a series of working procedures with the World Health Organisation, IATA and ICAO and issues specific guidelines to cabin crew, cleaners and maintenance crew, the whole object of which is to concentrate on the other hygiene issues associated with this condition. In the United Kingdom, those standards were already being adhered to by British carriers.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that most of the air in an airliner’s cabin comes through the bleed air off one of the jet engines? Indeed, there are grave concerns over the air toxicity in airlines at this time. A survey is being undertaken by the Cranfield Institute of Technology on this air toxicity, which rather goes to show that the air filters do not work properly in planes. Will he say when the Cranfield Institute of Technology will report on air toxicity in airliners?

My Lords, all the facts set out by the noble Lord are valid. The Government are taking seriously the concern about toxicity. We believe that there is a problem and have committed to the study as a precautionary measure. In fact, the Committee on Toxicity said that there was no proof either way that there was any connection between the bleed air in the cabin and pilot health. I cannot give an exact date by which Cranfield University will produce its report, but it is actively engaged in the cabin air sampling programme with five participating airlines. I hope that the peer review study will be published as a whole as soon as is practicable.

My Lords, will the noble Lord say what plans are being made for pupils, who may have been flying, to take GCSEs and A-levels if, as is likely, there are widespread school closures? I declare an interest as a mother of a GSCE student and an A-level student.

My Lords, fortunately my noble friend has prepared the House for this sort of question. It is a leap too far.

My Lords, if there was any danger to the health of pilots, would not the appropriate union, BALPA, take it up? Is there any evidence to show that it has done so?

My Lords, as a former shop steward in that union, I can absolutely assure the House that, if there was the slightest danger to pilots, the union would take it up with great energy.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this really is a growing and serious problem? Has he been informed that the staff on aeroplanes are now having to take medication to ensure that they do not get these colds that so often turn into flu? Finally, is he also aware that, when people smoked on aeroplanes, the routine was to clean the air thoroughly but that, since smoking has been abolished, the air is not cleaned routinely because that is too expensive? Will he do something about this?

My Lords, the practical effect of recirculating air is a reduction in fuel consumption and hence a reduction in CO2 emissions. There was a window of opportunity in the back half of the past century—in 1999—when a comparison was made in a wholly random group between the propensity to catch colds, flu and so on in aircraft that did not recirculate and the propensity in aircraft that did. This was referenced in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which concluded:

“We found no evidence that aircraft cabin air recirculation increases the risk for URI”—

upper respiratory tract infection—

“symptoms in passengers traveling aboard commercial jets”.