How Airlines Could Help Slow the Spread of Disease

Kamie Berry | September 2nd, 2017

Many people come down with colds and other minor illnesses after flying. While this is certainly an annoyance for frequent travelers, the problem of disease spreading through an airplane cabin is a major problem with there are major epidemics underway, such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16. A group of scientists from two American universities now says that changing the way that airlines board planes could significantly reduce the potential to spread contagious diseases during flights.

After running several scenarios through a computer modeling system, the researchers discovered that the current method of boarding most airlines use- dividing the plane into three or more sections and boarding from front to back- leads to a 67% chance that a contagious disease like Ebola could spread to 20 or more passengers per month. These infected passengers could then go on to spread the illness to more people once they de-plane.

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The problem with the current method of boarding is that it causes passengers to cluster together while waiting for first class passengers and other earlier boarders to put their bags in the overhead compartment. Instead, the researchers suggest that the plane be split into two sections and that passengers be boarded randomly in each section. This lowers the risk of infecting 20 or more people per month from 67% to 40%.

In addition, the size of the plane can also affect the spread of disease. Contrary to what most might think, smaller planes actually reduce the risk of disease transmission. Planes with fewer than 150 take less time to board, which reduces the clustering patterns found when boarding larger planes.

If airlines adopted these boarding procedures and used smaller planes, it could very well lead to fewer people catching colds and other illnesses while flying. The scientists who conducted the study think the likelihood of airlines doing so is very small. It would simply be uneconomical to swap out all their large planes for smaller ones. And it is doubtful that first class passengers would be willing to give up their early boarding privileges.

This research might be helpful, though, when there is a major disease outbreak like the West African Ebola epidemic. Many airlines end up having to cancel flights to these areas due for safety reasons. This sometimes stops much-needed supplies and medical personnel from traveling to these regions, or at least makes it very difficult. If airlines could use smaller planes and change boarding procedures when flying to and from an affected area, they may not have to cancel flights altogether.

For now, no airline has aid whether or not they will adopt these procedures when flying to areas affected by major epidemics. But the researchers are still hopeful. They also intend to use their model to determine if it can be applied to other modes of transportation, such as trains and buses, to see if there are ways to avoid spreading disease there, too.

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