Social distancing on planes: Aviointeriors Janus design separates passengers with 'shields'

Can economy class travel survive in the era of social distancing?

It's a question raised by the head of the aviation industry's peak body, Alexandre de Juniac from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who suggested that airlines having to leave some seats empty on flights would mean the end of cheap air travel.

But one airline seat design firm believes it has come up with a solution to revolutionise economy class cabins while keeping passengers safe.

Italian company Aviointeriors has come up with 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.

The design would be made of materials that can be easily cleaned and kept hygienic, according to Aviointeriors.

Some airlines already offer a similar seat layout in business class, with every second seat facing backwards. This can be off-putting for passengers, so Aviointeriors has 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".

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Of course, both of these designs would face a long approval process before they could be installed on an aircraft. The shields could potentially cause issues with evacuation procedures by creating obstacles for passengers attempting to get out of their seats in an emergency (this is the reason why your tray table needs to be put away and your seat upright during take-off and landing).

Although Aviointeriors' portfolio features a range of more traditional seats across all classes, the Janus and Glasssafe concepts are not the first outlandish ideas to come from the designers.

The company is behind the notorious "Skyrider" seat design, sometimes referred to as a standing seat, which uses a bicycle-seat-style design to cram even more passengers into economy class.

SkyRider 3.0 design standing plane seat from Aviointeriors. 

The Skyrider 3.0 design.

Although the design has been around for many years, no airline has implemented it (though Ryanair expressed some interest). In the era of social distancing, the Skyrider idea is likely finished.

It will join a wide range of clever seat designs over the years that have been left on the ground. Airlines tend to be risk-averse and, as a result, will rarely try a new concept if there's even a small chance it could backfire.

Air New Zealand's economy class Skycouch, introduced in 2010, has been the only major change to economy class seat design this century. It sees the footrests of three seats lock into an upgright position, allowing one or two passengers to put their feet up or lie down (albeit in the foetal position).

See: Airline review: Is the Skycouch worth the price

The airline recently unveiled a plan for bunk beds in economy cabins called the "Skynest", aimed at making flights more comfortable on its long-haul flights including its planned 17 hour, 40 minute non-stop route to New York.

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Air New Zealand economy class bed design Skynest

Air New Zealand unveiled the 'Skynest' in February. 

However, this week the airline announced it would postpone the launch of that route until 2021 at the earliest.

See also: Five ideas from the airline industry that will never take off

See also: Why 'genius' new economy seat designs never take off

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