Air travel is the disease-spreading trifecta: You have forced proximity with a mixture of people from many different places for long hours. These factors combine so germs can hop from person-to-person and bounce from continent-to-continent.
The SARS, Zika, and Ebola viruses have shown us that airlines have important responsibilities when outbreaks occur because their actions can have widespread consequences. In the past, airlines had to decide who to board and whether to fly at all. Recent studies now show that how passengers are boarded and the size of airplanes used can also stop people from being infected.
A multidisciplinary group from Arizona State University created a mathematical model to predict how many people would be infected using different boarding methods. The bad news is that the most prevalent boarding method of boarding in zones (first class first, then business class, then the back of the plane last) infects the most people. Of the current boarding policies available, the more random boarding approach of Southwest Airlines was the best way to avoid illness because you don’t have people hovering over you while they are waiting to take their seats. The researchers identified the best boarding strategy as a two-section model, which is not available yet. The plane is divided into two sections and the passengers board randomly within the sections. This technique reduces disease-spreading contact the most and stops disease from spreading most effectively, showing a 27% reduction. By using smaller planes (50 seats or less) and adding more frequent flights to the two-section boarding model, the likelihood of infection decreased by an additional 13%. On the flip side, there was no difference in disembarking methods and rates of infection. In the meantime, the researchers suggest you can avoid getting sick by wearing a surgical mask (a great way to make friends on your flight!) and staying away from the back of the plane where people congregate around the bathroom and kitchen.