New Study: Back-To-Front Boarding Increases Coronavirus Exposure Risk

Filed Under: Misc.

During the pandemic we’ve seen airlines introduce all kinds of policies intended to keep passengers safe. Well, one of those policies may have increased the risk of exposure to coronavirus.

New boarding processes increase coronavirus risk

During the pandemic we’ve seen several airlines introduce back-to-front boarding. The logic is that this reduces the number of passengers closely passing by others who are already seated, and therefore the risk of exposure to coronavirus is reduced.

Well, new research from the University of West Florida suggests that back-to-front boarding:

  • Increases infection exposure by 100% compared to random boarding
  • Increases infection exposure by 50% compared to boarding processes airlines used pre-pandemic

How could this be? Essentially the study looked at how long it takes people to store their luggage and how long people have to spend in the aisle giving way to others, under each type of boarding model. The study finds that the highest risk of infection comes from closer contact between passengers in the same rows clustering in the aisles to store their bags, and back-to-front boarding makes that much worse.

Researchers simulated different boarding processes using pedestrian dynamics, and stated that infection risk could be significantly lowered if airlines:

  • Prohibited passengers from using overhead bins
  • Board those in window seats before aisle seats

A new study suggests airlines could reduce exposure risk by not using overhead bins

This is interesting, but not necessarily useful

I find this research to be interesting, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily buy the math in the real world. Not because researchers did anything wrong with their simulations, but rather because airplane boarding simulations rarely reflect how things work in the real world.

For as long as I can remember we’ve seen research done into the “best” (typically most efficient) ways to board, yet airlines are constantly tinkering their boarding processes. Because no matter how you set people up to board, they’ll never board exactly as planned.

The next major issue is that even though we’re over a year into the pandemic, there are still a lot of questions about the risk of being exposed to coronavirus when flying.

On one end of the spectrum we’ve seen IATA suggest that there were only 44 confirmed cases of coronavirus associated with flying, out of a total of 1.2 billion passengers traveling. This has caused airlines to promote that your chances of being infected while flying are one in 27 million. On the other end of the spectrum, we saw 47 people on a single flight test positive for coronavirus.

Personally I think flying is as low risk of a non-distanced indoor activity as you’ll find, thanks to good air circulation and well enforced mask policies. I absolutely don’t believe exposure risk is one in 27 million, but I also don’t believe it’s 47 in 188.

It’s anyone’s guess what the real risk of coronavirus exposure is on planes

Bottom line

A new study suggests that back-to-front airplane boarding increases the risk of exposure to coronavirus by 50-100%. While this kind of boarding limits the number of people you walk past, there’s a greater risk from people being clustered in one area trying to store their bags in overhead bins.

What do you make of this research on boarding?

  1. @ Ben — That’s an interesting point, and it also gets at how simulations could differ from the real world. For example, this doesn’t account for the increased risk of a lot more people queueing at check-in to check bags (if overhead bins weren’t used), which would also have to be factored in.

  2. Lucky, it’s refreshing to see you acknowledge that there is some risk with flying compared to others who claim flying is safe as it has been pre pandemic !

  3. iMHO there are too few valid studies. I will note that my wife had a follow-up visit with a pulmonologist after simple hospitalization with Covid. The Dr recommends nobody board an aircraft yet, regardless of vaccination or Covid history. She felt there remains a contagion and variant issue.
    I also take note of a flight from India to Hong Kong where there are meticulous records kept. It seems very likely that 30 people were Covid negative at boarding and developed Covid in the 10 days after,

  4. @Ben

    Check out the new, innovative boarding procedure that Azul has introduced a few weeks ago.

    That’s a true game hanger.

  5. “sample size is too small”

    If I understand Ben’s article correctly there was no sample at all, the study looked at mechanistic aspects around walking/standing/waiting for a certain time inside a plane.

  6. West Florida?
    The same state that has a school which is banning vaccinated teachers because there may be unknown risk to the students from such teachers?

  7. Seems like a no-brainer to have all window seats board first, then middle seats, and finally aisle seats.

  8. Reminds me of a youtube video about the better way to board a plane, that choke point or this case lower contact could be improved by boarding from windows, middle, and then aisle as mentioned to improved boarding but we people will probably still screw it up

  9. It’s confusing to me why the main photo for this story would be a Southwest Airline plane since they do not board from back to front! Seems misleading.

  10. I’m with Jackson 🙂

    First flight in 13 months 11 days yesterday DCA-DEN, so l’ll report back in 10-14 days. 😉

    Lovely FA Laura but boarding on UA was a zoo (1st domestic UA flight in years) . We had paid 1st class tickets and were in group 2. Preboarding had 30+ folks. Then 49 in Group 1??? I asked the gate agent why and she rebuked me that anyone can buy group 1 – UA where everyone is above average 😉

    And crowded trains at Denver 🙁

    So the whole trip is with COVID potential. #YMMV 🙂

  11. The UK Chief Medical Officer’s advice is to open windows when people are together in confined spaces. Until planes are modified to provide opening windows, I’m grounded!

  12. I don’t think this study makes sense, since the same people will be sitting in the same area (clustering), therfore “clustering” to put away their bags while still in masks should not increase risk.

  13. @Bill n DC Barring some very unusual health conditions, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t already have at least a first COVID vaccination. Or do you just want to compalin?

  14. Am I the only person who wants to know about Ben’s “seeing” a group of 47 people test positive? Where was this? What were the conditions of this please. I have been flying recently and the have not tested positive. I will say, however, that I absolutely will NOT visit another United Club after what I witnessed in Denver. Filthy condition. Zero cleaning or sanitizing for nearly two hours. And I have it all on video.

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