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Designers turn an airplane’s middle seat into a COVID-19 sneeze guard

It might not stop the spread of COVID-19, but it would probably make you feel safer.

As COVID-19 has made crowded flights unsafe, both Delta and American Airlines have left some or all middle seats on their planes unsold, to enable social distancing.

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For now, those middle seats are just empty. But the London-based air travel design firm Factory Design has a better idea. Called the Isolate, it’s a drop-in partition that sits in a middle seat to give a bit of extra protection between you and your row-mate. “We thought if that [middle] seat is going to be blocked out, why not make a positive feature for the passenger that adds value, rather than be seen as a negative,” says Peter Tennent, director at Factory Design.

[Image: courtesy Factory Design]
Currently in development, Isolate features a split table, providing a bit of extra surface space for each passenger. In the middle of that table, a tall divider slots into place. That divider could be a clear screen or a foam-covered partition that offers more privacy.

Which planes could this insert fit? “Ideally, we would develop it to be generic across many different seat types,” says Tennent. “The truth is that it may be too much of a challenge as seats vary in width and armrest detailing. However, it could be largely the same product, with adaptors.” Installation should be simple, using the lap belt and armrests to lock the Isolate into place. The designers hope it to make it flat-packable for storage when it’s not in use.

So will we ever see the Isolate on a flight? Maybe, maybe not. The product is still in development. It must be certified for flight, and Isolate needs a customer to order it too. “Realistically, we probably need three to four months and the right partners,” says Tennant.

In any case, the Isolate wouldn’t be enough to make flying safe in the age of COVID-19. Air recirculates through large portions of the cabin, and we need to rethink a lot more than just the middle seat to make air travel safe in the age of pandemics. Even so, if I had to get on a plane in the next month, I’ll admit it: I’d certainly feel a whole lot safer with an Isolate by my side.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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