OEM Studies Show Low Risk of Covid Transmission in Airliners

 - October 8, 2020, 1:38 PM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

Engineers from Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer appear to have reached a consensus that the cabin environment in an airliner poses far less danger of Covid transmission than virtually any other indoor setting. Boeing engineering director for the company’s Confident Travel Initiative Dan Freeman, Airbus Engineering executive and leader of the Airbus Keep Trust in Air Travel initiative Bruno Fargeon, and Embraer vice president of engineering Luis Carlos Affonso joined International Air Transport Association medical advisor David Powell during a Thursday briefing on the risks of Covid infection during air travel, during which IATA presented statistics showing that a total of 44 people out of 1.2 billion passengers have contracted the virus on a commercial airplane during the pandemic.   

All three companies have conducted their own studies—using both computational fluid dynamics and either cabin mockups or actual airplanes—to determine what exposure passengers actually suffer. None articulated any need for significant aircraft cabin redesign or even more frequent replacement of HEPA air filters. Meanwhile, all rejected the efficacy of transparent cabin dividers under development and, in fact, suggested that the disruption to airflow they might cause could actually increase the danger of transmission.

“We do not recommend using [seat dividers] for several reasons,” said Airbus’s Fargeon. “Either they are very small and don’t protect you from anything or they are large and, if they are large, that means they disrupt the [airflow]. By the way they need to be cleaned…They also pose some other safety problems in terms of evacuation, in terms of fire propagation. So the benefits they would bring is zero we fear…so we are not investigating any more these kinds of devices.”

Boeing’s Freeman agreed, although he stressed that the manufacturer continues to study possible improvements to its aircraft cabins in general. Embraer’s Affonso also concurred. “It really brings more negatives than positives, including for virus propagation,” he said. “It’s another transmission element with all the downsides of disrupting the airflow.”

While the companies’ study methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems do control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. Data from the simulations yielded similar results, finding that aircraft airflow systems, HEPA filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air, and high rates of air exchange all reduce the risk of disease transmission on board in normal times.

Still, none of the experts recommended allowing passengers from opting not to wear masks. Affonso, for one, noted that a mask worn by both a potential virus carrier and an adjacent passenger reduces the risk of transmission six-fold.