circa 1960: Interior of a BEA Vickers showing the passenger section

Fear of Flying

Airlines could do one easy, cost-effective thing to make air travel safer

“They were not interested in talking about N95s or looking at infection risk.”

Getty/Fox Photos

Air travel can be awful. Over the past decade, planes have gotten more cramped, the food has gotten worse, and airlines learned that they could charge you for everything. Prior to the pandemic, it was working. Airline profits were booming.

The novel coronavirus, however, at least temporarily forced some airlines to make changes their wallets weren’t thrilled about. For example, some airlines started leaving the middle seat empty to space passengers out further from each other. Some adopted a strict back-to-front boarding policy with the idea that it would reduce contact between passengers.

However, new research suggests that boarding back to front increases infection risk — and public health experts tell Inverse boarding changes are just one aspect of air travel that could be made safer.

As parts of the world reopen — a European Union proposal announced Monday would allow vaccinated American tourists to travel to Europe as early as June — and the Covid-19 crisis continues, air travel health precautions should continue to be refined and improved. But experts also say airlines are reluctant to make even the most simple and cost-effective safety changes.

What’s new — Researchers modeled back-to-front airplane boarding and found it increases infection risk by 50 percent compared to the pre-pandemic boarding process of boarding business class, followed by people sitting in various zones.

These results were published last week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Compared to a randomized boarding process one in which people are interspersed throughout the plane, with no one area or section substantially filling up before the others, rigid back-to-front boarding doubled the SARS-CoV-2 infection risk.

Before you draw comparisons to Southwest’s infamous love-it-or-hate-it seating process, the study authors note that a truly random process is different from how Southwest currently boards — one where “passengers may sit anywhere they wish to, and their seating preference may not yield a random order.” Their suggestion is a deliberately random process, as oxymoronic as that might sound.

For those who hate the constant logjam of the boarding process, this idea is especially appealing. While being sandwiched between two people as they try to shove barely fitting suitcases into the overhead compartments is harrowing during a pandemic, it’s not most travelers’ idea of a good time regardless of the public health risks.

Other critical findings — The researchers offer other suggestions for further reducing transmission risk:

  • Not booking the middle seat
  • Boarding passengers in window seats before the aisle seats
  • Not using overhead compartments

Like random boarding, the first two options are likely appealing to travelers regardless of the health consequences. Who doesn’t want more room when they’re on an airplane? And asking someone to stand up so you can be seated (or worse, climbing over their legs because they refuse to do anything but move their legs aside) is probably not most travelers' idea of a good time.

And what about the overhead compartment?

Ashok Srinivasan, one of the researchers on the study, tells Inverse it’s not the overhead compartment itself that’s a problem. It’s how people gather around it.

“If people are using overhead bins, it’s going to take some time to get their luggage in — they block other people who are next to them,” Srinivasan says. “So you have clusters of people who are just standing next to each other. Their proximity to each other increases the risk of infection.”

What’s the safest way to fly during the Covid-19 pandemic?

While a change in the boarding process might help reduce infection risk somewhat, Lisa Brosseau tells Inverse that it’s going to take a much more holistic approach to get to anything approaching safe travel. Brosseau, an expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases and previously a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says there’s still the issue of the airport to grapple with.

“What's happening in the waiting area?” Brosseau asks. “Everyone who is sitting around, are they going to rush up all at once?”

She adds that people should also be concerned with how long people have to be in the waiting area and how far apart they can be from each other.

In short, it’s going to take more than a random boarding process for Brosseau to get on a plane anytime soon.

If she had to fly, Brosseau says she’d want to take several precautions:

  • Arrive as late as possible at the airport to minimize time around other people
  • Get a flight where the middle seat isn’t booked
  • Turn on the air above her as high as possible to maximize airflow and filtration
  • Wear an N95 respirator

“And, of course,” she adds, “be fully vaccinated.” Even if the CDC endorses fully vaccinated people traveling, masks are still required on planes, buses, and other forms of public transportation.

Brosseau says it’s unlikely that airlines will take enough precautions to make her comfortable anytime in the near future. Some airlines have already gone back to booking the middle seat.

What comes next — Srinivasan agrees with Brosseau’s about the importance of N95s and shares her skepticism about airlines prioritizing safety over cost.

“We don’t talk about this in the study,” he says, “but I think everyone having tightly fitted N95 masks would be the simplest and most effective solution.” He says that if N95s were a requirement or even provided by airlines, “you can keep middle seats occupied — you can board any way you want to.”

But despite it being an easy and cost-effective solution, Srinivasan isn’t hopeful. He’s modeled the risk of contracting viruses like SARS and Ebola during air travel for years. He says he tried to talk to airlines about N95s years ago.

“They were not interested in talking about N95s or looking at infection risk,” he says. Airlines can either “spend a billion dollars [on masks] now or wait for a multibillion-dollar [government] bailout when people stop flying,” Srinivasan says.

More often than not, Srinivasan and Brosseau believe, airlines will choose the latter.

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