UNM study finds sneeze guards on planes reduce possible COVID-19 spread

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Ahead of summer travel, researchers at the University of New Mexico are taking a look at how airlines can do more to help stop the spread of COVID-19. One suggestion is installing sneeze guards between each seat.

There is one thing Mohamed Abuhegazy said he now won’t travel without. “If I fly, I will take my sneeze guard with me,” Abuhegazy said.

That is after the UNM researcher took a look at the effectiveness of sneeze guards on planes. He and others studied the Boeing 737 cabin and ventilation system to see how particles move from an infected person throughout the plane. “When we install these sneeze guards, what will happen,” Abuhegazy asked. “Will it reduce the risk? Will it be effective or not?”

This comes after airlines including Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska limited seating for months by blocking out the middle seat to increase the amount of space for social distancing. Abuhegazy’s findings show that filling up the plane 100% and installing sneeze guards between passengers is as effective as leaving the middle seats open. “I believe it will be more cost-effective,” Abuhegazy said. “The sneeze guard is like 20 bucks. It is just a plastic sheet between each passenger. It is reusable because you can sanitize between each flight.”

Researchers also found that particles coming from an infected person are most likely to settle on the seat and surrounding walls. Plus, it takes two to three minutes for those particles to settle so they are suggesting airlines board passengers from the back first, divide them into small groups and wait a few minutes in between. “Anyone moving in aisles can get these particles, but if we wait two to three minutes, this amount of time is enough for the particles to settle,” Abuhegazy said.

He said he hopes these findings help inform airlines and passengers how to travel more safely. Delta is the last U.S. airline still blocking out middle seats. The airline announced Wednesday that the policy will end in May as more people are getting vaccinated.

The study looked specifically at the Boeing 737 cabin and ventilation system. The researchers said they plan to expand the study to other aircrafts.

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