The way we board planes could actually be spreading diseases

Fair or not, airplanes have a reputation for germs. And separate from the cleanliness of the cabin, transportation networks have been tied to the spread of infectious diseases.

But there are ways to minimize the risks, and a new study by researchers at Arizona State University suggests that how airlines board passengers could make a big impact.

The airplane boarding process could be spreading diseases, according to a study

Generally, airlines’ boarding processes boil down to having passengers board in three sections: the front, the middle, and the back of the plane. This can lead to crowding in the aisles and more close contact between passengers, which can spread disease, according to the study.

The researchers suggest the best way to board is by splitting the plane into two sections and randomly boarding passengers in these groups.

To test this, the study evaluates a hypothetical case of a passenger with Ebola and to see how close contact with the disease might change and spread based on boarding strategy.

“We consider the situation with one infected individual with Ebola traveling on a commercial airplane,” the researchers wrote. “The infective passenger onboard is not identifiable; therefore, we varied the seating position of the infected individual through all the seats.”

With the suggested boarding process, the estimated risk of exposure to illness dropped from 67 percent to 40 percent.

The data also found that smaller planes are much less likely to spread infection, since fewer people means fewer chances of an outbreak.

“Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,” said Anuj Mubayi, one of the authors of the study.