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The hazards of flying

The next time you fly you might be getting more than you bargained for. Much discussion recently has centred on the phenomenon whereby some passengers fall ill in the days following a holiday flight. I was particularly concerned when, on top of becoming immobilised with fever and severe flu-type symptoms myself after returning from Majorca in March this year, I spoke to several other cyclists that on returning from training camps like myself had suffered similarly. It is common that after undergoing concerted training for a week or two the immune system is depressed enough to be less able to fight infections. I was further alerted when I read an article in the Daily Telegraph of April 19th 2001 about the subject.

With the headline "Thrombosis not the only in-flight threat", referring to the current controversy surrounding blood-clot formation during long flights, the piece proposed that aircraft were also "breeding grounds for bugs" due to clogged air filters and other on-board sources. Staff who had removed high-efficiency particulate air filters from airliners had been infected with tuberculosis, and claimed that filers on some aircraft were so clogged that micro-organisms had grown straight through them. "The filters are creating a greater biological hazard than they are taking out of the cabin air," said one expert. One of the key causal factors is reduced airflow. It is claimed that economy passengers receive only 7 cu.ft. of air per minute, which is insufficient, compared to 50 cu.ft. per minute in first / business class.

Lord Donaghue, a former minister in the Blair government, claims he suffered serious respiratory infections after 3 out of 4 ministerial flights in 1998, and now wears a respiratory mask, a ‘bugstopper’, during air travel. George N.Tompkins, a leading US aviation lawyer who has caught pneumonia on two occasions, now takes shots against this prior to every flight. Austin Mitchell MP confirmed that there is no regulatory body governing this aspect of flying.

The humidity of the air during flights starts at 2% compared to 50% on the ground, and this results in the surfaces of nasal passages drying up, leaving them without a proper layer of moisture that provides a barrier against infections. Viruses also proliferate in dry atmospheres. There were several other examples given about separate features of a typical aircraft that could assist in infecting passengers.

So be warned, it might be useful to check with your doctor what is available in trying to prevent such problems in the event of a forthcoming flight, particularly if it’s to a training camp. Becoming ill on returning could negate any benefits provided by the training.

Thanks to Farrol Khan of the Aviation Health Institute

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