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Coughing Dummies Help Boeing and United Track Viruses on Planes

For the past four months, United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Boeing Co. have been flying around jetliners loaded with mannequins, aerosol sprays, sensors and scientists in an effort to understand how contaminated air moves through passenger planes.

The research is just one small part of a sweeping global campaign to figure out the threats posed by the coronavirus. But for the airline industry, the results could help determine how quickly carriers bounce back from the edge of disaster after the pandemic made people afraid to get on a plane. U.S. demand for flights remains at less than a third of 2019 levels, based on airport security screening data.

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The U.S. military initiated the $1 million study when the spread of Covid-19 raised concerns about infection risks for troops transported on passenger jets. Companies including United, Boeing, and Zeteo Tech LLC, a Maryland-based biodefense and medical device maker, are contributing equipment and expertise.

If the findings can show how likely it is for a passenger to be infected by breathing the air on a plane, “it’ll probably drive some policy decisions,” said Mike McLoughlin, Zeteo’s vice president of research.

Reassuring Flyers

Airlines have sought to reassure the public that flying is safe by implementing an array of onboard cleaning and disinfecting procedures, requiring face masks in the cabin and improving ventilation and filtration systems. But they haven’t been able to show what, precisely, are the chances of infection if that person sitting next to you or across the aisle breaks out into a virus-laden cough.

To collect the data, researchers placed mannequins with human-like heads in various seats throughout seven models of Boeing and Airbus SE jets, then made them cough. Or rather, they simulated a human cough, and how aerosolized particles are expelled and disseminated through the air on the plane, McLoughlin said.

Aerosol particles will behave differently under different cabin scenarios, said Byron Jones, an engineering professor at Kansas State University who studies airline cabin air and was not involved in the project. Gas and particles in a cabin become “a witches’ cauldron,” he said, based on air flows, particulate sizes and other factors. “It just swirls and churns and twists. It’s very chaotic,” he said. But that churning isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “That’s what you want to see in a general ventilation (system).”

Researchers evaluated how factors such as circulation, the exchange rate of cabin air, filtration and forward-facing seats affected the flow of aerosolized particles through the cabin, and who would be most exposed in their proximity to a cougher. Particle sizes and various locations throughout the cabin were considered. Tests were repeated with the dummies wearing disposable surgical masks.

October Results

The tests were conducted during 30 hours in flight and 24 hours on the ground from May 5 through August. Analysis of the data and peer reviews are expected to be completed this month with a final report issued in October.

Boeing declined to comment on the results they’ve seen so far. In a statement, the company said it’s approaching the question of virus spread “from an engineering perspective by conducting data-driven analysis studies, simulations, modeling and live testing, which will help us all better understand the transmission and risks of COVID-19.”

The project is funded and led in part by the U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, which buys airline seats and charter flights to transport U.S. troops and their families around the world. The Command sees the study as critical to safely mobilizing troops, said Lieutenant Colonel Ellis Gales Jr., a spokesman. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency helped connect the Transportation Command with United and Boeing.

If the analysis shows infection risks through the air can be controlled on a plane, the industry might be able to use those results to help persuade the public to start flying again even before a vaccination for Covid-19 might be widely available.

“Throughout the pandemic, our top priority has been the health and safety of our customers and crew,” Toby Enqvist, United’s chief customer officer, said in an email. Enqvist said he’s encouraged by the early results he’s seen, but did not provide specifics.

“Everybody is keen to get the results out as quickly as possible but we want to make sure that when we release those results we’re painting an accurate picture,” McLoughlin said.

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5 comments

  1. Covid pandemic = tooth fairy, Easter bunny, Santa Claus, etc….

    • My fiancé has been trapped in the U.K. since March thanks to the flight ban. Enough of this. Wearing a mask and fumigation should be plenty. A plane sitting on the ramp sealed for 3 days would kill it also. Nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

      • It’s not about the virus, it’s about control over people and it will not end until there is massive noncompliance of the restrictions.

        • Bob,
          I believe from what I personaly have been studing for the last ten years is that you are right. But we have open our minds now past the just the phycological control and the herd control and delve more into the physical/mind control. I found that what they have been spraying is a Nano material that coats everything, and who says it doesn’t travel, swirl around in the plane while in transit? Back in the late 90’s there were scientists creating (smart) dust that was to coat everything for tracking, but i believe it has moved way beyond that now into Nano machinery in vaccines and why not possible transit vehicles? Darpa has come up with a substance that will be injected that moves into the brain and actually is said to control thoughts. I don’t know about it but its freaky to me, its sounds Frankensonian to me. Any way the info is out there you just have to search it out for yourself, peace!

  2. Considering they have laid many of us employees off they shoild have plenty of money! They seem to forget that employees help make them a wealthy company. They can do all they want with Boeing, I will never fly United or support their busines after the things I have seen or been treated. Go to h–l United!

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