From bad to worse: Airline boarding changes in response to COVID-19

T. Islam, M. Sadeghi Lahijani, A. Srinivasan, S. Namilae, Anuj Mubayi, M. Scotch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Airlines have introduced a back-to-front boarding process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is motivated by the desire to reduce passengers' likelihood of passing close to seated passengers when they take their seats. However, our prior work on the risk of Ebola spread in aeroplanes suggested that the driving force for increased exposure to infection transmission risk is the clustering of passengers while waiting for others to stow their luggage and take their seats. In this work, we examine whether the new boarding processes lead to increased or decreased risk of infection spread. We also study the reasons behind the risk differences associated with different boarding processes. We accomplish this by simulating the new boarding processes using pedestrian dynamics and compare them against alternatives. Our results show that back-to-front boarding roughly doubles the infection exposure compared with random boarding. It also increases exposure by around 50% compared to a typical boarding process prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. While keeping middle seats empty yields a substantial reduction in exposure, our results show that the different boarding processes have similar relative strengths in this case as with middle seats occupied. We show that the increased exposure arises from the proximity between passengers moving in the aisle and while seated. Such exposure can be reduced significantly by prohibiting the use of overhead bins to stow luggage. Our results suggest that the new boarding procedures increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 compared with prior ones and are substantially worse than a random boarding process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number201019
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2021


  • COVID-19
  • aeroplane boarding
  • pedestrian dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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