Airlines Are Actually Reducing Potential COVID-19 Exposure by Returning to Pre-pandemic Boarding Methods, Study Suggests

Airlines Are Actually Reducing Potential COVID-19 Exposure by Returning to Pre-pandemic Boarding Methods, Study Suggests

“Random” boarding might be the safest option for travelers

Airlines including Delta, JetBlue, and United temporarily switched to back-to-front plane boarding during the pandemic to cut down on unnecessary close contact between passengers. But a new study says this method — filling aisles one-by-one from the back — could actually double your chance of being exposed to COVID-19 compared to random boarding.

Using middle seats and letting passengers stow luggage in overhead bins also increases the risks of COVID-19 exposure, according to the study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal Wednesday.

Scientists from US colleges including West Florida and Arizona State simulated various boarding processes and looked at how often people came into close contact with other passengers. Bloomberg first reported on the study.

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The scientists said that airlines introduced back-to-front boarding so that people could avoid passing by people sat in other rows when they took their seats.

But the research found that back-to-front boarding increased the amount of contact between pairs of seated passengers, and between pairs of passengers in the aisle.

The scientists said airlines could have had a roughly 50% lower risk of infection if they stuck to their pre-COVID-19 boarding process, where they typically let the business class boards first, followed by the economy class, with passengers sorted into various zones.

“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,” the scientists wrote.

JetBlue and United have both dropped the policy, and Delta is reverting to its pre-pandemic boarding from May 1.

The researchers also said banning the use of overhead bins to stow luggage “significantly” reduces exposure. This is because passengers often cluster in the aisles while they wait for other people to stow their luggage.

The report added that keeping middle seats empty reduced the risk of exposure, too, echoing a recent CDC report that said that middle-seat blocking may reduce COVID-19 spread on airplanes by up to 57%.

Delta is the only major US airline still blocking middle seats, but has said it would stop doing so May 1. The Trade organization Airlines for America indicated to Insider’s Thomas Pallini that it wouldn’t recommend any changes following the CDC’s report.

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Airlines May Soon Reinstate Change Fees on Lowest Fares, Expert Says

Airlines May Soon Reinstate Change Fees on Lowest Fares, Expert Says

As the airline industry struggled to hang onto passengers during the pandemic, major U.S. airlines reinvented their change fee models to offer more flexibility. While for most booking classes, those changes became permanent, that stipulation did not apply to the lowest-cost flights, often called basic economy fares.

Right now, most airline tickets — including those on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United — come with free date changes across all classes, including basic economy. But that policy will end for the lowest fares at the end of March, according to Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights. (He notes that Southwest already didn’t have change fees on their fares.)

On top of the fare difference of a new flight, change fees could range from $100 to $750, so it may be time to strategize on how to approach upcoming flight deals.

While the CDC is still recommending that all Americans “delay travel and stay home to protect [themselves] and others from COVID-19,” now may be the time to book future basic economy fares in order to hold onto the flexibility of making date changes later.

 

“Booking by March 31 ensures you get flexibility on your ticket in addition to a cheap fare,” says Keyes. “If things look good by your trip date, then great. You got a bona fide cheap flight. If things don’t look good by your trip date, no worries. You can push your trip back a couple of months without having to pay a penalty.”

 

If President Joe Biden’s goal of having American life closer to normal by July Fourth is successful, then it may be a good strategy to invest in those cheap late summer and fall flights now, since they’ll come with the ability to push dates back as needed. “Think of it as booking flights in pencil, not in pen — a unique arbitrage opportunity to lock in a cheap fare and have flexibility if necessary,” says Keyes.

 

However, he notes some caveats to consider. For example, the flexibility doesn’t mean cancellations are free, so there is a chance you may absorb the cost of the flight if you end up not taking the trip at all.

Keyes also points out that while the March 31 deadline exists now, there is a chance it could change as the pandemic plays out. With the CDC warning of a possible new spike in COVID-19 due to the rise of spring break travelers, that final date is up in the air, though he guesses it will stick.

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