Air travel and COVID-19: Passengers want barriers in plane cabins, aviation industry says

Airline passengers want visible plastic barriers in the cabin to reinstill confidence in flying during the pandemic, saying they do not all trust industry assurances about high air quality onboard, aviation industry executives said on Thursday.

Other pandemic-related trends could include more private business class seating on narrowbody planes, adding touchless lavatory features and permanent conversions of passenger planes to freighters, according to a panel at the MRO Asia-Pacific conference held online.

Embraer is studying reusable and disposable plastic barriers for its regional jets, but challenges include making sure they are lightweight, not flammable and do not affect aircraft cleaning and evacuation, said Lais Port Antunes, a business development manager in the planemaker's Asia-Pacific division.

"Modern aircraft are already equipped with excellent technology to filter the air," she said. "The passengers should feel safe in an aircraft cabin, but they need to see actions."

Tan Hean Seng, a senior executive at Singapore Technologies Engineering, said airline customers, fearing cost increases, did not seem interested putting fewer seats in economy class. But, he added, the airline still needed to reassure them about risk.

"Having a shield between the seats, the passengers may feel safer, especially during mealtimes when passengers take off masks and there is potential contamination," Tan said, adding his company had developed a prototype.

In business class, airlines are already expressing more interest in lie-flat seating options as they look to use narrowbody planes on longer routes, Boeing Co Vice President of Specialty Products and Services Kate Schaefer said.

"There is an awful lot of interest in those premium passengers in having a pod-type solution," she said. "There is going to be a lot of interest in pods, doors and staggered seating." 

In April, Italian company Aviointeriors unveiled the "Janus" seat, named after the two-faced Roman god.


The design sees the middle seat facing backwards, separated from the aisle and window seats by a "shield" that "prevents the breath propagation to occupants of adjacent seats".

The shield is also on the outside of the aisle seat, offering additional protection from passengers and crew who are walking past. The shield could be transparent or opaque.

Aviointeriors also created a more basic design called "Glasssafe", which would entail simply installing the shields on existing seats to create a barrier between passengers.

Glasssafe would create "an isolated volume around the passenger in order to avoid or minimise contacts and interactions via air between passenger and passenger, so as to reduce the probability of contamination by viruses or other".

Reuters with Craig Platt

See also: Lie-flat in economy class? New social-distancing seats won't take off

See also: New economy seat design could solve social distancing on planes