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Should social distancing be applied while seating inside a passenger aircraft?

On your journey to catch a flight you’ll see social distancing applied in almost everywhere you go. The bus you may have taken to go to the airport, the airport queue line that you were standing behind for check-in, in the set of chairs that you were sitting while waiting for boarding but, when you step inside the aircraft you are sitting next to one another in a packed flight to your destination. That may arise you a question of whether if social distancing should be applied in aircraft passenger seating or not?


The Dash8 and the ATR used in domestic flight operations have two rows of seats with passengers sitting in very close proximity to one another. Some airlines that have 3 seats together have kept the middle seat blocked to assure social distance between two passengers, but is that at all necessary?


IATA has been reporting since May that they do not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing while onboard aircraft as evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission onboard aircraft is low even without special measures. In an aircraft:


  • Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions

  • Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin

  • Airflow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin, moreover, airflow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments

  • High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation


The cabin airflow within the aircraft is already refreshed with filtered air continuously throughout the flight bringing in fresh inside the aircraft from externally. 100% refreshed air can be provided to the Dash8 aircraft in under 3 mins while the ATR can do so within 5 minutes.


“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is low. And we will take measures such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by the crew to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.


IATA recommends mandatory face coverings for passengers and masks for the crew as one of several actions to reduce the already low risk of contracting COVID-19 onboard aircraft.

In addition to face coverings, these layers of temporary biosecurity measures being proposed include:

  • Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers, and travelers,

  • Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew,

  • Limiting movement within the cabin during flight,

  • More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and

  • Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.


Jim Haas, the Director of Product Marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes said: “we don’t see the need to re-design the sitting arrangements on the airplane, and a good case in point, a good proof point of this is the international transport association has done several surveys of many carriers, looking to see if passenger to passenger transmission of a virus is happening in the airplane. And they have done an analysis of several carriers that had people with active viruses traveling. What they found was, it is very, very rare to have a passenger to passenger transmission on the airplane. With these extra protective layers, I described, with everyone wearing masks, within the odds of transmission or even lower.”

If social distancing were to be applied, airlines will be limited to operating with just half of the maximum passenger capacity and this would be too costly for the airline to operate with. If this has been enforced flight ticket costs would rise significantly. If all these safety measures are taken place within the airport and the aircraft, your flight journey would not cause a major threat in transmitting the virus.

Source: https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2020-05-05-01/

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