Boarding passengers seated at the back of the aircraft first – a COVID-era change by Delta Air Lines Inc and others to cut the risk of infection – actually increases the chance of catching the virus by 50%, Business Standard reports a scientific study showed.
So-called back-to-front boarding is also twice as risky as letting passengers on at random, even though it does reduce exposure between seated passengers and those walking down the plane, according to the study. The higher risk comes from closer contact between passengers in the same rows clustering in the aisle as they stow their luggage.
Delta adopted back-to-front boarding to “minimise contact with other customers,” according to its website, though the US airline only boards 10 passengers at a time. The change was among several across the industry – including blocking out middle seats – to persuade passengers it is safe to get back on a plane.
Scientists simulated 16,000 possible passenger movements for the study. “The new policies do not improve on the old ones in any situation,” they said.
The risk of virus exposure could be reduced by stopping people using overhead storage bins, and by boarding passengers in window seats before those in aisle seats, according to the study.
From bad to worse: airline boarding changes in response to COVID-19
T Islam, M Sadeghi Lahijani, A Srinivasan, S Namilae, A Mubayi, M Scotch
Published in Royal Society Open Science on 28 April 2021
Airlines have introduced a back-to-front boarding process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is motivated by the desire to reduce passengers' likelihood of passing close to seated passengers when they take their seats. However, our prior work on the risk of Ebola spread in aeroplanes suggested that the driving force for increased exposure to infection transmission risk is the clustering of passengers while waiting for others to stow their luggage and take their seats. In this work, we examine whether the new boarding processes lead to increased or decreased risk of infection spread. We also study the reasons behind the risk differences associated with different boarding processes. We accomplish this by simulating the new boarding processes using pedestrian dynamics and compare them against alternatives. Our results show that back-to-front boarding roughly doubles the infection exposure compared with random boarding. It also increases exposure by around 50% compared to a typical boarding process prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. While keeping middle seats empty yields a substantial reduction in exposure, our results show that the different boarding processes have similar relative strengths in this case as with middle seats occupied. We show that the increased exposure arises from the proximity between passengers moving in the aisle and while seated. Such exposure can be reduced significantly by prohibiting the use of overhead bins to stow luggage. Our results suggest that the new boarding procedures increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 compared with prior ones and are substantially worse than a random boarding process.