The current plane boarding protocols used by most airlines are ideal for the spread of infections, according to new research published in the journal Physical Review.

By using the Blue Waters supercomputer, researchers from Florida State University were able to simulate boarding and deplaning procedures and identify which ones were more prone to the spread of infection. The findings from this analysis showed that current boarding practices used by most airlines (boarding in a three-zone system) may be flawed. The researchers were able to come to these conclusions through refined computer models that focused on granularity which accounted for various behavioral patterns such as time to stow luggage and time to clear an aisle.

“It turns out that procedures that are generally good at getting people onto a plane very fast are also very bad at preventing infection,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science Ashok Srinivasan. The research team identified strategies that could potentially cut transmission, but these strategies had tradeoffs, such as longer boarding time for passengers.  

Results showed that a two zone boarding system, in which the plane is divided lengthwise in columnar sections and allows for passengers to board randomly was found to significantly cut disease transmission. The computer model found that with current three-zone boarding protocols, in the event of an Ebola outbreak, there would be a 67% probability of ≥20 new air-travel infections per month. In contrast, by using smaller planes – which are less likely to spread infection – and the randomized, two-zone boarding system, the probability was cut to 13%.

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The suggestion is made by the research team that if this was implemented temporarily in response to a major epidemic, these procedures could go a long way in curtailing widespread disease transmission. This strategy could also be an alternative to completely grounding international flights to countries that are already reeling under the impact of an outbreak.

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