What are Cruise Lines Doing to Improve Air Filtration on Board? While most major cruise lines now require vaccination against COVID-19 for all passengers and crew, the cost of overhauling air filtration systems means that fewer lines than we'd like have upgraded their systems to anything approaching HEPA standards for the ship as a whole, not just for the medical facilities and isolation units.
Thanks to HEPA filters and efficient circulation on commercial aircrafts, the air you breathe on a flight—although not necessarily wholly virus-free—is much cleaner than the air in restaurants, stores, and possibly your home.
About 40% of an airline cabin’s air is filtered through the aircraft's HEPA system; the remaining 60% is fresh air brought in from outside the plane. Cabin air is completely changed every three minutes, on average. Certified HEPA filters “block and capture 99.97% of airborne particles over 0.3 micron in size, which is smaller than the typical SARS CoV-2 particle of about 1 micron in size, although even these are usually part of a larger particle about 4-5 microns in size.
Of course, planes are considerably smaller than cruise ships, making it a considerable investment to upgrade cruise ship HVAC systems to HEPA (or a similarly rated MERV) air filters. Here are the cruise lines that have gone the farthest, where air filtration is concerned.
1. Regent Seven Seas, Oceania, NCL: AtmosAir, All Crew and Guests Vaccinated
Air Filtration: Norwegian Cruise Line, which also owns Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, has partnered with AtmosAir to install its bipolar ionization technology on all 28 ships. The new air filtration features continuous active COVID disinfection, with no ozone, radiation, or other harmful chemical byproducts. An advantage to the AtmosAir solution is that air purification process treats a larger volume of air in the target space instead of relying on contaminants passing through the air handler unit.
AtmosAir notes that tests performed by Microchem Laboratory confirmed the presence of coronavirus was reduced by 99.92% within 30 minutes of exposure to AtmosAir.
Additionally, NCL is installing HEPA or MERV 13 medical grade air filters (depending on the type of HVAC system on board the ship). Those with the H13 HEPA air filters are capable of removing 99.9% of airborne pathogens including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Vaccination: All guests and crew must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 2 weeks prior to embarkation, in order to board the ship.
2. Virgin Voyages: AtmosAir, All Crew and Guests Vaccinated
Air Filtration: Virgin Voyages, which was to launch its first ship, Scarlet Lady in 2020, was the first cruise line to announce a partnership with AtmosAir, which it is retrofitting Scarlet Lady with as part of Virgin Voyage's Voyage Well protocols.
Vaccination: Virgin Voyages requires that all guests and crew are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 2 weeks prior to embarkation, although unlike NCL, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, Virgin Voyages appears to leave some wiggle room, answering a FAQ question on exceptions for guests who cannot be vaccinated with “While we are comfortable with and continue to stand by our current policy, we are aware that certain exceptions may be appropriate and will factor this into our operations.”
3. Windstar: HEPA Filters and UV-C; All Guests Vaccinated
Air Filtration: Windstar Cruises is installing high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in the HVAC systems on all Windstar yachts. The HEPA-filtered air is further sanitized and disinfected with ultraviolet-C light for germicidal irradiation. When air passes the UV-C light, microbes such as bacteria and viruses not trapped in the HEPA filter will be destroyed.
While not an air filtration feature, another benefit of sailing with Windstar Cruises is the considerably smaller number of guests compared to other luxury cruise ships, with even its flagship Wind Surf carrying a maximum of 342 guests, while The Wind Spirit carries just 148 guests.
Vaccination: All Guests must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 2 weeks prior to embarkation, and Windstar crew are required to be vaccinated “as soon as the vaccine is available to them.” This isn't as iron-clad as NCL's requirement that ALL crew be fully vaccinated at least 2 weeks prior to beginning their duties on the ship, and we hope to see Windstar only draw its crew from the U.S. or other countries where all adults 18 years and older are currently able to be vaccinated.
4. Silversea, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean: Upgrading to MERV13 Filters, Vaccination Required for All Guests and Crew
Air Filtration: Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Celebrity and Silversea Cruises, apparently considered but rejected AtmosAir filtering, opining that there wasn't enough data on the solution (something tells us that cost had something to do with the decision) and instead is adjusting its shipboard settings to allow for the maximum number of air changes per hour and is upgrading to MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) 13 filters throughout the system. MERV 13 filtration is of course better than MERV 12 and lower, but not as effective as HEPA air filters. A MERV 13 filter will trap, at its minimum efficiency (i.e. when it's doing its worst), less than 75% of air particles that are 0.3-1.0 micron in size, and 90% or better of particles that are 1-10 microns in size. Most particles that can contain SARS CoV-2 are thought to be 4.7 microns in size, but that MERV 13 90% or better efficiency is still less than a HEPA filter, since HEPA filters have a rating of MERV 17 or higher.
Vaccination: All All guests and crew must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 2 weeks prior to embarkation, in order to board the ship.
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