Safety in Flying: ACA (Aviation Clean Air) Ionization System

airplane vents
August 9, 2021
Safety in Flying: ACA (Aviation Clean Air) Ionization System

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology is a prominent voice in the aviation space. These blogs are for informational purposes only and are meant to spark discussions within the aviation industry on a variety of topics. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic made people more aware than ever of the risks associated with sharing close spaces such as airplane cabins. Between country-level travel bans and trip cancellations, the World Economic Forum estimates that the aviation industry lost $880 billion since March 2020. 


While airlines have begun to recover, there is still a lot to be done to assure passengers that they are safe from coronavirus, and other pathogens, when they fly. Precautions like an aviation clean air ionization system can eliminate airborne viruses and bacteria and reduce the risk of transmission. 


Safety in Flying 

While many people have put off travel, there are times when flying is unavoidable. Additionally, many people are ready to begin flying to see family and friends now that vaccines have begun deployment. But what safety precautions are keeping people healthy when they are up in the air? 


Experts at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Mayo Clinic, and pilots with major airlines have shared their best safety while flying tips — and a few insights. Luckily, because of the way that air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, viruses typically do not spread easily during flights. However, crowded flights and extended travel can both make it difficult to social distance. 


A retired airline pilot answering questions in USA Today said that the number of redundancies in critical systems makes flying safe. Airplanes typically have two or three sources of cooling and purification for the air. Additionally, most other safety systems have multiple backup systems. For instance, the hydraulic systems often have either three independent systems, or two regular systems and a standby in case of failure. 


Flight attendants on both commercial and private flights are trained in CPR and first aid. Airplanes have extensive first aid kits that include medical oxygen, and emergency equipment for the treatment of heart attacks. Crews can reach specially trained doctors via radio or satellite phone to get additional treatment advice, when needed. 


Air travel is highly regulated to ensure safety. People involved in every facet of a flight have extensive training and certifications or licenses. 


In addition to air cleaning throughout the flight, planes are cleaned and sanitized whenever possible between trips or overnight. Airlines that include JetBlue, United, Delta, and Southwest have begun using electrostatic antimicrobial sprays to disinfect airplanes. The electrostatic spray also uses ionization to bond to pathogens and destroy them. 


While surface transmission of COVID-19 is rare, this extra precaution can reduce the risk even further. Special attention paid to high-touch surfaces such as armrests, door handles, and sink handles in lavatories can keep passengers and crew safe. 


What is an Aviation Clean Air (ACA) Ionization System? 

One of the systems that can help reduce the risk of transmission of viruses during flight is the Aviation Clean Air (ACA) ionization system. This is a system that is used to remove or neutralize pathogens and other pollutants. 


Duncan Aviation recently released an Aviation Clean Air ionization system designed specifically for Challenger 300 and Challenger 350 aircraft. The Duncan system has been approved by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA), and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). At the time of this writing, they are working on acquiring additional certifications for other airframes. 


The system is designed to be installed in the aircraft's existing environmental control system. Easy installation means that this technology is more accessible and more likely to be adopted. Duncan's ACA, for instance, can be installed at any of Duncan Aviation's MRO facilities, or in satellite shops throughout the US. 


Once in place, the ionizers neutralize pathogens like the virus that causes COVID-19. The system can also remove other irritants and allergens such as pet dander, cigarette or cigar smoke, lavatory scents, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like those released by hair sprays, engine exhaust, cooking, and more. 


How Does an ACA Ionization Purification System Work? 

In the past, HEPA filters and UV lights were used to destroy bacteria and viruses in aircraft cabins. While ionization technology existed, it could not be used without generating ozone. Ozone is harmful to the linings of the lungs and can be especially damaging to people who have respiratory issues like asthma. 


Newer ionizers use a process that is low in ozone creation. Airplane ionization systems are a relatively new creation, with most having first been developed around 2012 and used on 737s. After that, new models were developed to be installed on a wide range of aircraft from small Cessna Citation airplanes up to large wide-body aircraft. 


During ionization, an atom either loses or gains an electron. Ion generators release negative ions into the air. In the case of an ACA system, the atom used is negatively charged hydrogen. 


Negatively charged atoms will bond with positive ions that are floating in the air. These can be found in dust particles, viruses, airborne bacteria, smoke, and VOC molecules. 


When the molecules bond, this increases their weight. The heavier molecules fall instead of being recirculated through the cabin. This means that the air that is circulated back through the cabin is cleaner and safer. 


Additionally, this bonding activity damages the surface proteins that viruses like COVID-19 use to enter cells. This makes them less effective invaders and reduces the risks of successful virus transmission. According to some tests, ionizers can reduce the level of coronavirus in the air by over 99% within 30 minutes of exposure to the ionization system. Airplanes continuously circulate and filter air, which means that air particles will come in contact with the ionizer on a regular basis. 


Tips for Safe Flying 

Between ionization systems and other measures like HEPA filtration, the air that circulates in a plane is regularly cleaned of contaminants. Travelers can also take personal precautions that can reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 or other pathogens. 


When dealing with issues such as ticketing, most airlines have turned to low or no-touch options. For instance, digital passes can be stored on a passenger's phone. Paper passes can be held up for examination, then scanned without handing them to gate personnel. 


All passengers and crew are advised to get fully vaccinated before flying. According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can travel safely within the US. 


Masks are still recommended on forms of public travel like commercial airplanes, even when vaccinated. In many Asian countries, individuals routinely mask while flying, or will opt to wear masks when they feel they may be coming down with something. 


Frequent handwashing can help travelers and others reduce the risk of transmitting or contracting illnesses during travel. Many travelers also opt to bring alcohol-based hand sanitizers during travel. 


People who are at high risk for respiratory illnesses, such as those with compromised immune systems, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions may wish to delay air travel. Options such as private planes, when available, can cut down on the risk of transmission simply because there are fewer passengers on board. 


People who are not vaccinated may need to get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before travel. They should also get tested again three to five days after travel or self-quarantine for 10 days. Recommendations change frequently, so make sure that you are up to date on the most recent best practices. 


Best practices for international flights will depend on the infection levels and the rules in the countries involved. Each place is different and has different regulations in place. Travelers and crew should look into local risks and regulations to make the best decisions about safe practices. 


Final Thoughts 

While the COVID-19 pandemic is a new situation, protecting safe breathing in airplanes is a concern that has been taken up by many great minds for as long as passenger air flight has existed. 


Because of the highly trained individuals who work in aviation, and the deep research required for airplane safety, many of the methods that would keep passengers safe from viruses like COVID-19 were already either in use or in development. 


By studying how air moves and putting measures such as filtering and ionization into place, those in the aviation industry can see to it that their passengers are well-protected. 


While Spartan College doesn’t offer this program, we invite you to explore other aviation-industry training that we offer. Click here to learn more about our programs. 

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