Is the major overhaul of the Covid-19 aircraft seat underway?

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“Glassafe”, the concept above where the seats are fitted with protective screens, was proposed by Aviointeriors.(CNN) – Plexiglass dividers between passengers, new staggered row layouts, zig-zag seats, transparent space-age bubbles around travelers’ heads – just as new divider screens have appeared in shops and restaurants around the world. whole in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so came a wide variety of new concepts for airplane seats.

In the months that followed, as warrants for masks, hand gel and sanitizer wipes became staples of airlines, a fundamental shift in what we see when we sit in an airplane cabin. did not follow.

At the same time, scientific and medical understanding of the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has advanced rapidly. Much of the infection is now known to occur via the droplet and aerosol routes (rather than the fomite or tactile route), which affects the type of protective barriers that are most effective.

Indeed, the most effective barrier is the one closest to the mouth of an exhaling passenger: the humble face mask. That’s why airlines generally oblige them and ban passengers who endanger others by not wearing them.

Despite the proximity, the aircraft environment does not appear to present a much higher risk than other interior spaces. Thefts continued in many parts of the world and very few were found to be clusters of infection themselves.

It appears that the widespread requirement to wear face masks on airplanes, the high efficiency particulate air filtration or HEPA on many aircraft, and some unique aspects of the in-flight environment, have likely contributed to this.

“The reasons for this apparently low in-flight transmission rate are not known,” noted the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade body, “but could include a combination of the lack of contact face to face, and the physical barriers provided by the seat backs, as well as the characteristics of airflow in the cabin. A more in-depth study is planned. ”

“Janus”, from the Italian firm Aviointeriors, offers seats made up of a row of three, with the seat in the middle facing in the opposite direction.

Courtesy Aviointeriors

The challenges of modifying airplane seats

During the first half of 2020, a wide variety of cabin additions were offered to combat the spread of Covid-19 and reassure passengers. Transparent barriers that clip into the back pocket, foam inserts for the seat top, sculpted headrest protection elements and more.

Cabin interior supply companies around the world have been scrambling to see what they can do in case airlines want to make these big changes to their cabins.

Some companies have even come up with new ways of arranging the seats, like the Janus seat from Aviointeriors, where passengers face in alternating directions.

The Janus proposal includes seats equipped with a three-sided shield.

Aviointeriors

The proposed barriers attached in various ways to the seat, which led to very specific challenges in getting them on board. Many of these challenges overlap, of course.

To begin with, any addition to the aircraft cabin must be certified as safe in various ways.

It must be fire resistant and not emit fumes which could be toxic to passengers. It must withstand incredible forces without breaking, creating sharp edges or blocking the emergency exit of passengers from their rows.

That’s right whether it’s attached to the seat or supplied by the airline – like, say, a foam insert to create barriers from the back row. These barriers would, in essence, create a “sneeze guard” between the rows.

Perhaps more complicated, anything attached to the seat in particular must undergo crash tests, which has become more difficult in recent years as regulators insist that travel is always safer.

For the seats and everything attached to them, this includes loading them with crash dummies and props and pulling them on a sled to crash with 16 times the force of gravity, without the dummy sustaining any injuries. major simulated.

“Certification was the main challenge,” said Mark Hiller, Managing Director of Recaro Aircraft Seating. “When you add a function to the seat that increases weight, the entire seat has to be recertified. It is not an easy process, but creating a lasting and lasting solution is our goal.

Recaro offered a number of barrier-type additions, as well as antimicrobial technology to be incorporated into the seat materials during the manufacturing process.

Overall, putting a plexiglass wall between you and the cashier is much more complicated than your supermarket.

Recaro offered a number of side rail options.

Recaro offered a number of side rail options.

Courtesy of Recaro

Cost and timing are major factors

Airlines should also keep all these cabin additions, replacing them due to basic wear and tear or misuse by unfamiliar passengers.

Over the years, aircraft cabins have been designed and refined to be incredibly sturdy – one seating manufacturer openly advertises the sturdiness of its trays by getting potential customers to ride on them – but the speed at which these new products have been developed could well mean that they would need to be fine-tuned after installation.

And this period after installation is crucial. All additions, whether temporary or permanent, should be cleaned and maintained regularly. Adding time to the already limited schedules of airline cleaners creates complexity and costs, while airlines are also expected to maintain spare parts inventory throughout their operations.

Overall cost is certainly a factor, as airlines around the world enter the deepest financial crisis of modern times.

“We are aware that airlines are strapped for cash at the moment,” noted Recaro’s Mark Hiller, “so we need to be able to prove that these solutions will bring peace of mind to passengers and provide a return on investment. “

So far, Recaro has no takers on its proposals for Covid-era changes to airline seats.

The timeline is also a point against the implementation of many of these measures – both the expected timing of widespread vaccine availability from early to mid-2021 and the time required to design, certify, manufacture and install new ones. new seats or barrier additions.

In essence, there is little benefit to finishing an expensive program just a few months before the vaccine.

Some changes are more likely than siege barriers

For now, the best ways to fight Covid-19 appear to be to minimize contact between passengers – and between passengers and crew.

Service standards have been changed to reduce the amount of crew movement in the cabin, and meals have been redesigned to reduce the amount of time they stay open to the air while being prepared and eaten, although food is not considered a route of transmission.

So what is changing? Well, some of the more intense baking work involves antimicrobial – including antiviral – properties in the materials used for the seats and cabin.

Adjustments to meal service to minimize contact are already in place.

Adjustments to meal service to minimize contact are already in place.

British Airways

Carpets, a company that makes fabrics and leathers for aircraft interiors, in August launched its 9 Series Ultraleather with “silver ion antimicrobial technology embedded in the surface layers that prevent leaching and loss of moisture. ‘efficiency,’ which the company explained, ‘provides a safe shield. for microorganisms carried by aerosols in the aircraft to create a safe and low risk environment for passengers. ”

This type of material essentially disrupts the functioning of microbes, including viruses, and tests have shown promise on the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19.

Basically, this is the kind of product airlines seem to be betting on: no massive changes during the pandemic, but recognizing that passengers will no less be interested in on-board hygiene when the possible Covid-19 vaccine is released. will ease the public health crisis.

John Walton is a France-based international transport and aviation journalist specializing in airlines, commercial aircraft and passenger experience.

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