The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has imposed the need for a series of social distancing restrictions worldwide to mitigate the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic. This applies to many domains, including airplane boarding and seat assignments. As airlines are considering their passengers’ safety during the pandemic, boarding methods should be evaluated both in terms of social distancing norms and the resulting efficiency for the airlines. The present paper analyzes the impact of a series of restrictions that have been imposed or mooted worldwide on the boarding methods used by the airlines, featuring the use of jet-bridges and one-door boarding. To compare the efficacy of classical airplane boarding methods with respect to new social distancing norms, five metrics were used to evaluate their performance. One metric is the time to complete the boarding of the airplane. The other four metrics concern passenger health and reflect the potential exposure to the virus from other passengers through the air and surfaces (e.g., headrests and luggage) touched by passengers. We use the simulation platform in NetLogo to test six common boarding methods under various conditions. The back-to-front by row boarding method results in the longest time to complete boarding but has the advantage of providing the lowest health risk for two metrics. Those two metrics are based on passengers potentially infecting those passengers previously seated in the rows they traverse. Interestingly, those two risks are reduced for most boarding methods when the social distance between adjacent passengers advancing down the aisle is increased, thus indicating an unanticipated benefit stemming from this form of social distancing. The modified reverse pyramid by half zone method provides the shortest time to the completing boarding of the airplane and—along with the WilMA boarding method—provides the lowest health risk stemming from potential infection resulting from seat interferences. Airlines have the difficult task of making tradeoffs between economic productivity and the resulting impact on various health risks.
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