With more than two billion passengers annually, in-flight transmission of infectious diseases is a major global health concern. It is widely believed that principal transmission risk associated with air travel for most respiratory infectious diseases is limited to within two rows of an infectious passenger. However, several passengers became infected despite sitting several rows away from the contagious passenger.

This work thoroughly investigated the potential for disease spread inside airplane cabins using tracer gas to quantify airborne dispersion. Measurements were conducted in a full-scale, 11-row mock-up of a wide-body aircraft cabin. Heated mannequins to simulate passengers’ thermal load were placed on the cabin seats. Tracer gas was injected at the breathing level at four different hypothetical contagious passenger locations. The tracer gas concentration was measured radially up to 3.35 m away from the injection location representing four rows of a standard aircraft. A four-port sampling tree was used to collect samples at the breathing level at four different radial locations simultaneously. Each port was sampled for 30 minutes.

A total of 42 tests were conducted in matching pairs to alleviate potential statistical or measurements bias. The results showed that the airflow pattern inside the mock-up airplane cabin plays a major role in determining tracer gas concentration meaning that the concentration at the same radial distance in different directions are not necessarily the same. Also, due to the air distribution pattern and cabin walls, concentrations at some seats may be higher than the source seat.

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