Here's How Airplane Seats Could Change After Coronavirus

Creative cabin layouts and sneeze guards might be the new normal on post-pandemic planes.

While commercial air travel has been all but halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, many travelers are dreaming of the day they can fly the friendly skies once more. But the virus has created a fair bit of anxiety in would-be passengers who are worried about catching their seatmate's germs in a cramped cabin. As such, designers are conjuring up all sorts of ideas for new airplane seats that would offer passengers the most privacy—and therefore the most protection—as possible.

The idea of separated seats in airplanes isn't novel, at least not in business class, anyway. Passengers currently pay a premium for as much private space as they can be given, with frequent flyers praising suite-style options that are more like cubicles than they are plane seats. While suites will certainly continue their dominance in business-class cabins on long-haul aircraft, they're unfortunately unfeasible in economy.

Thus, designers are developing different solutions in the back of the bus. Italian studio Aviointeriors, for instance, has imagined the radical Janus seat, named for the two-faced Roman god that inspired its form. To offer passengers maximum protection from their neighbors, middle seats face backward, and each individual seat is enshrouded in a transparent shield. Passengers traveling together would then sit facing each other on a diagonal rather than next to each other. Aviointeriors has also devised the less bulky Glassafe product, a transparent hood that is designed to fit existing plane seats.

Janus airplane seat designed by Aviointeriors

Another idea in the works is the Isolate kit by U.K.-based consultancy Factorydesign. This involves a removable partition to be installed in the middle seat of an economy row. In fact, this design could be attractive to airlines like Delta, which has temporarily stopped selling middle seats to help with social distancing onboard.

"With the right partners—airlines, certification teams, manufacturers—we believe this could be available within three or four months," says Factorydesign director Peter Tennent.

It's a very optimistic timeline that would, as Tennent points out, require extreme cooperation. Some experts, however, don't believe the estimate is entirely realistic. "Airlines cannot just add partitions or anything to the cabin without first getting a prototype to test and get approved by the FAA," says Bobby Laurie, co-host of travel talk show The Jet Set and a former flight attendant.

Laurie also notes that there would have to be extensive testing to ensure the seats do not hinder the evacuation of passengers in an emergency. "The partitions or any addition would have to be written into the aircraft manuals, including the flight attendant emergency manual, before they could be installed," Laurie says. "Each airline would have to go through that process individually: it wouldn't be a blanket approval."

By the time all is said and done, there's a solid chance the worst of the pandemic might've passed, and air travel might be slowly returning to normal.

Isolate airplane seat designed by Factorydesign

As it turns out, partitions might not do much good in preventing the spread of viruses. If a person who has coronavirus sneezes, those particles disperse in a bubble, which could float around a partition.

"The droplets can go anywhere, thus making the partitions ineffective," says flight attendant Kelly Lacy. It's likely more effective, per the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to simply mandate that passengers and crew wear face masks to prevent those droplets from getting into the air at all—a rule major airlines have already put into effect—than to implement social distancing onboard.

On top of that, while planes are known to have pretty grimy surfaces throughout the cabin, their air filtration systems are on par with those of hospitals. Like medical centers, the majority of planes are fitted with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that remove 99 percent of microbes from the air, including the coronavirus. The air in a plane cabin is run through the filtration system anywhere from 20 to 30 times per hour, and recycled air is mixed with 50 percent fresh air to produce an even higher air quality. As a result, the odds are pretty low that you'll contract a virus by simply breathing in the air on a plane—you're much more likely to get it from touching a contaminated surface, which seat partitions wouldn't necessarily prevent.

That doesn't mean we won't see any changes in cabin design, however. "Isolate may well have value in a post-COVID era, particularly in cabins such as economy plus or short-haul business class," says Tennent. On many international airlines, business class on short-haul aircraft is simply standard economy seats with the middle seat left open to give passengers more space. The Isolate kit could easily work well in such a scenario. But a complete overhaul of the economy cabin for pandemic-induced social distancing? Maybe when pigs fly. And for more ways travel could change, check out the 13 Things You May Never See on Airplanes Again After Coronavirus.

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