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Changing Boarding Protocols Could Make Travel Healthier

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By    |   Friday, 01 Sep 2017 11:43 AM

During epidemics, air travel leads to the spread of infection, but a new study suggests that simply changing boarding protocols could be a key to reducing the spread of diseases, including tuberculosis.

After the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Florida State University Associate Professor of Computer Science Ashok Srinivasan began to investigate how infection spread on high-occupancy aircraft. Srinivasan and his team found that current zoned boarding procedures may play a role in spreading disease, and they offered several suggestions that could, if strategically implemented, mitigate transmission.

"There's been a lot of boarding and deplaning research framed in terms of speed and efficiency, but we aren't looking for efficiency. We're looking to decrease the spread of disease," Srinivasan said. "It turns out that procedures that are generally good at getting people onto a plane very fast are also very bad at preventing infection."

The clustered, huddled crowds of the multiple-zone systems, where groups of passengers board in congregated groups, are ripe for diseases to spread.

"While deplaning is a fairly fast and efficient process in terms of avoiding the spread of infection, our model shows that boarding the plane is the big problem," Srinivasan said. "When you have many zones, people in the same zone tend to come very close to each other, close enough to easily transmit infections."

A better option, say the researchers, might be a two-zone system where the plane is divided lengthwise in dual columnar sections, with passengers in each section boarding at random. While this system might sacrifice efficiency, the randomized boarding patterns help reduce the clustered crowds where infections flourish.

"When you have passengers board randomly, people are less likely to spend extended periods of time close to each other," Srinivasan said. "On the whole, random boarding does take longer, but if passengers had to choose between getting Ebola and being seated a few minutes later, we suspect they'd prefer the latter."

The study also revealed that, perhaps counterintuitively, smaller planes are less likely to spread infection than larger planes. Again, Srinivasan said it has to do with the presence of large, compact crowds that are the perfect environment for communicable diseases.

New boarding procedures could drastically cut the risk of catching a disease. For example, the researchers' model suggested that, under certain circumstances and with current boarding protocols in place, an Ebola outbreak would result in a 67 percent probability of more than 20 new air-travel-related infections per month. Substituting smaller planes and better boarding strategies, that probability was reduced to 13 percent.

The research appeared in the journal Physical Review.

A simple trick to reduce your risk of getting sick on a flight is to simply turn on your air vent, says Dr. Mark Gendreau, medical director at Lahey Medical Center-Peabody.

"Ventilation on airplanes has gotten a bad reputation, but it's completely unfounded," he told Travel + Leisure. Although the HEPA filters used to clean the air in airplanes remove most microbes, an open air vent above your seat creates a barrier around you that blocks airborne pathogens that cause diseases like tuberculosis.

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During epidemics, air travel leads to the spread of infection, but a new study suggests that simply changing boarding protocols could be a key to reducing the spread of diseases, including tuberculosis.After the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Florida State University Associate...
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2017-43-01
Friday, 01 Sep 2017 11:43 AM
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