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How Can the Flu Spread Inside an Airplane?

FEB 16, 2017 | KRISTI ROSA
According to the article, “the air [in airplanes] is constantly being pumped in from inlets in the ceiling and recycled out through vents at the passengers’ feet, making airflow models quite complicated to create.” In order to overcome this issue, Purdue researchers focused on any variable that might influence the “velocity and direction of the flow of air,” such as the positioning of the vents, or the “currents” created by flight attendants as they walk down the aisles. Identifying these variables helped the researchers develop “hundreds of scenarios” on how different germs can spread in pressurized cabins.

The researchers utilized the simulation technology to create a video simulation which shows a view inside of a crowded airplane. In the simulated airplane environment, one individual sneezed, creating a plethora of multicolored particles that are released into the air, essentially creating a storm cloud of germs over all of the passengers. The particles within the cloud scattered all over the cabin, but there were a few unlucky passengers who were hardest hit; the seats with the highest risk of infection were the ones that were directly adjacent to the sneezing passenger. According to ANSYS, “Flu particle movement depends on air flow in the cabin. Air circulates from overhead fans to lower vents. Flu particles disperse through plane with cabin air flow.”

“The particles are colored to show you where the stuff goes. Those droplets get picked up by the airflow and get transplanted all over the cabin. They actually spread quite far,” stated Dr. Harwood in the article.

The scenario depicted in the video is just one way in which these germs can spread.

By analyzing these different scenarios, researchers then advise the FAA with different recommendations on how to make airplanes safer for their passengers. In addition, the technology also allows airlines to make cost-efficient improvements to their airplanes. How? According to the article, “By simulating how new air conditioning systems will affect airflow, airlines can figure out which systems reduce germ travel for the lowest cost.”

When speaking of the implications of this technology, Dr. Harwood said, “[Airlines] want the cheapest flight but also for their passengers to be healthy. Our technology is useful because they can see how they can achieve that and improve performance without sacrificing cost.”
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