Aircraft cabin air recirculation and symptoms of the common cold

JAMA. 2002 Jul;288(4):483-6. doi: 10.1001/jama.288.4.483.


Context: In recent years, new commercial aircraft have been designed to recirculate approximately 50% of the cabin air to increase fuel efficiency. Some older aircraft use only fresh air. Whether air recirculation increases the transmission of infectious disease is unknown; some studies have demonstrated higher rates of the common cold among persons working in buildings that recirculate air.

Objective: To evaluate the role of air recirculation as a predictor of postflight upper respiratory tract infections (URIs).

Design, setting, and participants: A natural experiment conducted among 1100 passengers departing the San Francisco Bay area in California and traveling to Denver, Colo, during January through early April 1999, and who completed a questionnaire in the boarding area and a follow-up telephone interview 5 to 7 days later. Forty-seven percent traveled aboard airplanes using 100% fresh air for ventilation, and 53% traveled aboard aircraft that recirculated cabin air.

Main outcome measure: Incidence of reporting new URI symptoms within 1 week of the flight.

Results: Passengers on airplanes that did and did not recirculate air had similar rates of postflight respiratory symptoms. The rates of reporting a cold were 19% vs 21% (P =.34); a runny nose and a cold, 10% vs 11%, (P =.70); and an aggregation of 8 URI symptoms, 3% in both groups (P>.99). Results were similar after statistical adjustment for potential confounders.

Conclusion: We found no evidence that aircraft cabin air recirculation increases the risk for URI symptoms in passengers traveling aboard commercial jets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aircraft*
  • Common Cold / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Ventilation*