Boarding an airplane back-to-front is ‘substantially worse’ at preventing the spread of COVID-19 than previous methods, a new study suggests.
The practice was adopted by several major airlines – including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines – to minimize exposure between seated passengers and those entering the plane.
But researchers found that this execution can actually double the risk of coming into contact with the virus.
The team, from the University of West Florida, Florida State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said this is because there is very close contact between multiple passengers in the same rows clustering in the aisle as they stow their luggage in the overhead bins.
This results in a long line of people going down the length of the plane storing suitcases at the same time rather than just a few people scattered throughout the plane doing so during the typical process when boarding occurs by groups.
A new study finds that boarding an airplane back-to-front doubles the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for passengers compared to random boarding. Pictured: Passengers with face masks boarding inside an Aegean Airbus A320, August 2020
This is because there is very close contact between passengers in the same rows crowding in the aisle as they store their suitcase in the overhead bins. Pictured: Models showing how back-to-front poses the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19
For the study, published in the Royal Open Society Science, the team ran more than 16,000 simulations of possible boarding processes.
While back-to-front boarding limited exposure of seated passengers to those walking by them, it increased proximity between passengers sitting close together.
Results showed the new method doubled the risk of exposure compared with random boarding.
What’s more, back-to-front increased the risk by 50 percent compared to the typical process of zone boarding prior to the pandemic.
This is because when passengers boarded in the back first, they tended to crowd around each other as they put carry-on luggage in the overhead bins.
Researchers found that clustering in the same part of the plane as passengers trying to store their suitcase increases the risk of exposure.
The researchers said this is line with previous studies, which found that the spread of Ebola on airplanes was linked to the clustering of passengers while waiting for some to store their suitcases and take their seats.
In addition, the study found that keeping middle seats empty also lowered the risk of exposure, and if the middle seat was occupied, random boarding was still safer.
To reduce the risk of boarding, the researchers suggest that airlines ban the use of overhead bins to stow luggage.
They also recommend boarding window-seat passengers first and then middle and/or aisle passengers.
‘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,’ the authors wrote.
It comes as United Airlines announced on Tuesday that it will no longer board its flights from back to front.
Instead, the company will resumes is Better Boarding technique, which boards passengers in five groups with two lanes each.
‘Last year, United temporarily switched to boarding from the back of the aircraft to the front to improve social distancing,’ a spokeswoman told Travel + Leisure in a statement.
‘Now that more customers are returning, this can result in customers gathering in the gate area to wait near the boarding door for their row to be called. This gathering defeats the social distancing purpose of back-to-front boarding.’
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