Why airlines aren’t rushing to redesign cabins for social distancing

Air transport industry relying on small changes to reduce coronavirus transmission

As countries around the globe take tentative steps toward reopening, businesses are finding creative solutions to maintain social distance and hopefully reduce transmission of the coronavirus: circular tables resembling inner tubes at restaurants, cubicle-like dividers between exercise machines at gyms, even drive-thru zoos.

But those expecting similar innovations from the air travel industry will be disappointed. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are opting for upgrades and modifications, including no-contact cleaning methods, rather than a reimagining of the cabin itself. They argue these smaller changes will lay the groundwork for safer air travel once the virus subsides and demand returns to pre-pandemic levels.

“In the long term, we have to build things in and provide things that enable airlines to provide the level of service or operational models that they have,” said Mike Delaney, leader of Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative, during a video interview at the AIAA Aviation forum.

Manufacturers and airlines acknowledge the close quarters of an aircraft cabin aren’t conducive to social distancing. Even if aviation regulators were to sign off on a cabin redesign, retrofitting planes would consume time and resources. Delaney estimated that modifying the Boeing fleet alone, about 13,000 of the approximately 26,000 commercial aircraft in service before the pandemic, “is probably a 10-year horizon.”

So with both time and money in short supply, efforts like Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative aim to increase passenger comfort with air travel through small changes that can be implemented quickly and easily. To that end, Boeing has jumpstarted development of a hand wand for bathing interior aircraft surfaces in ultraviolet light to kill microbes including the novel coronavirus, and is disseminating information via social media about existing aircraft features that improve cabin air quality.

This more measured approach is the way to go, said R. Eric Jones, chair of the aviation maintenance department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. He told me that while visible changes like a bubble around first-class passengers or a plastic shield between seats might reassure travelers, manufacturers should be wary of “Band-Aid fixes” that give the perception of a safer cabin but offer negligible improvements.

“I think that just communicating to people is half the battle,” he said. For instance, “if the pilot was to give a briefing and say, ‘here’s how the air system works on this airplane.’”

Aerospace analyst Richard Brown is similarly dismissive of drastic cabin modifications, but for a different reason: The aircraft is just one part of the travel experience.

“You’re just as likely or more likely to catch [the coronavirus] in the airport than you are in a purified place” like an aircraft, said Brown, managing director at NAVEO Consultancy in London. He said myriad lower-cost changes, including travelers wearing masks and airport employees directing passengers to board aircraft from back to front, will be more effective.

“I believe as the traveling public, we have to learn to live with this” new way of travel, he said. “I don’t think radical measures are needed. They’re common-sense measures.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be an adjustment period, Jones warned. He compared it to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. The air transport industry responded with increased security measures that included sealing the cockpit during flight, but it still took three years for passenger numbers to completely recover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“Despite all the assurance, it’s going to take people time to overcome the fear,” he said.

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Why airlines aren’t rushing to redesign cabins for social distancing