The ongoing pandemic has affected virtually every industry on Earth, but few sectors have been hit as hard as flight. With travel all but gone, with people working from home, and with many reluctant to board a plane, the airline industry is struggling to stay aloft.
To ease fears, some airlines opted to cut out the middle seat and create a buffer area between passengers. But there may be a better solution. According to a new study, “sneeze guards” (nonporous plastic shields) installed between seats can help drastically reduce the number of particles from being transmitted between passengers, reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The study, which modelled aerosol transmission on a Boeing 737 airplane, was carried out by a team of researchers at the Univeristy of New Mexico led by Khaled Talaat.
The study compared aerosols in three situations: an airplane at full capacity, an airplane with vacated middle seats, and an airplane at full capacity with sneeze guards between passengers. The computerized model analyzed dispersion of the aerosols emitted by people talking, breathing, and coughing.
The study did not consider face masks, Talaat told ZME Science as the primary objective is comparison of the intervention method of using sneeze guards vs. vacating the middle seat.
The sneeze guards made a big difference, the model showed. They essentially kept the airflow and the particles around the passenger who emitted them, limiting the spread of aerosols through the cabin. In an email, Talaat also summarized the main findings thusly:
(a) sneeze guards can make full capacity flights roughly as safe as flights with vacant middle seats.
(b) sneeze guards work mainly by redirecting the flow forward which reduces lateral transfer of particles.
(c) Seats and walls are highly contaminated with particles even more than the ground. We recommend covering seats and disinfecting walls between flights.
(d) It was identified that particles take 2–3 min to deposit or leave the system as air in the cabin is rapidly renewed.
“We recommend loading passengers in the back seats first and waiting 2–3 min between each passenger group would allow particles to settle or leave the system before other passengers enter,” Talaat also added.
The Boeing 737 is the most widely used airplane model in the US. The findings should, in principle, apply to other airplane models as all the mechanisms are similar. But since the cabin geometry is different, the effectiveness of the sneeze guards will also be different and should be analyzed separately.
From an economic point of view, this may be a better alternative for airlines than cutting out a third of their seats, provided that they can ensure the airplane is cleaned in between flights.
With vaccination still lagging in many parts of the world, the airline industry’s challenges are not behind them just yet, and solutions like this may be what they will need to consider.