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The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has wreaked havoc with professional sports leagues — from the NBA to the NFL.

For major sporting events (especially international events) to continue, airlines may need to radically rethink the way they transport passengers.

Removing the Middle Seat Is Not Enough

Affordable modern air travel is built on the premise of fitting as many people as possible into the cabin. Cabin-stuffing of this sort is what enables airlines to make enough money at scale to offer flights at a price the ordinary passenger can afford.

Unfortunately, this approach is not suitable during a pandemic, especially one where proximity is the main source of infection.

Many airlines have adapted to this situation by removing the middle seat. This approach worked as a stopgap, but it is incredibly expensive for airlines and it’s unsustainable in the long term. The other problem is that individuals are still very close to each other and therefore one case of COVID-19 is likely to spread rapidly to all the passengers in the cabin.

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COVID-19 leaves airlines with two options. The first is to wait and hope that governments will get a handle on the pandemic. Japan’s ban on Olympic fans traveling demonstrates that this won’t work.

That’s because vaccination rates are sluggish in many countries and mask mandates have been lifted in places where the pandemic is still spreading. Since COVID-19 has proven that it can mutate into more infective strains, we will probably be forced to live with the virus for the foreseeable future.

This means that it is time for airlines to consider the second option: pandemic-proof cabins.

Radical New Cabin Designs Could Be the Key

Two main factors can exacerbate the spread of COVID-19:

  • Proximity to an infected individual and
  • Airflow in the environment.

Traditional plane designs are not suited to solving either of these problems so these areas are where innovation is taking place at the moment.

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Short-term solutions — the most likely to be implemented — that do not require airlines to rebuild their cabins fall into a handful of categories.

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Isolating Infected Passengers

The first method is isolating infected passengers. These solutions put contagious passengers into isolated bubbles. The best example of this type of isolation is Airbus’s PaxCASE (Passenger Containment Area for Symptomatic Events) design. This semi-transparent plastic sheeting encircles a row of seats to quarantine an infectious passenger.

Unfortunately, PaxCASE is designed as an emergency measure and is unwieldy to be applied across an entire plane.

Improving Passenger Safety Awareness

Another important consideration is passenger awareness. Boeing and the US Department of Defence have conducted studies demonstrating that airline ventilation systems are remarkably good at capturing the COVID-19 virus and do not spread it around the cabin.

The biggest risk of transmission comes from passengers unknowingly interacting with infected areas. One innovative solution to this challenge is to implement seats that change color when cleaned with UV, allowing passengers to clearly see safe seating areas.

More Innovation Is Needed

In the long term, more innovative designs will be needed. There are several proposals being considered by the industry, but one that stands out is Zephyr Aerospace’s proposal to implement lie-flat pods on the plane in economy class. Moving to a solution like Zephyr’s would allow airlines to seat people more comfortably than before while maintaining better social distancing.

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Airlines Need to Adapt – And Quickly

The simple fact is that COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon – but neither will air travel and tourism. The world probably won’t — and shouldn’t — end large-scale sporting events like the Olympics and people will always need to travel.

Airlines will need to rapidly adopt innovative methods to transport large numbers of passengers safely to their destinations while minimizing the risks of spreading COVID-19.

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