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Small droplets can hang in an airplane cabin, causing 'high-risk': Expert

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Qingyan 'Yan' Chen joins Yahoo Finance's Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi to discuss how COVID-19 could change future plan designs, how passengers can stay safe, his work with Boeing on a future ventilation system and more.

Video Transcript

BRIAN SOZZI: Hi, and sticking to the airline industry, our next guest took a closer look at how quickly infectious viruses can spread throughout airplane cabins. Here to discuss is Yan Chen. He's a professor at Purdue University School of Medical-- Mechanical Engineering. Yan, good to see you this morning. Thanks for taking some time.

My question to you is this. Should you feel-- should-- comfortable taking a flight on a plane right now? And should the elderly feel comfortable taking a flight on a plane right now?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: Brian, it's-- it's a great question. At this moment, I think really airlines have taken some good measures to ensure the safety of our flying public. For example, they put the masks to the passengers. They also try to disinfect the airplanes. So with a lot of measures-- and I think the flying public can gradually go back into the airplane.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Professor, you actually sent over a-- a graphic that showed that small droplets from a passenger just talking or coughing can really spread throughout the cabin. What kind of a challenge is that for the-- for the flying public? And how can we best protect ourselves?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: Yes, as you can see from the animation, the droplet due to a cough could really spread the entire cabin-- not entire cabin. I mean three rows before and three rows behind this coughing person. And because of these droplets-- a larger one will deposit just in the ground or on a different type of surfaces very quickly. However, a small droplet, which may also contain the COVID-19 virus, could hanging in the air for three to four minutes. And therefore, if you sit next to at least a sick person, then it's a very high risk for you.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Is wearing a mask enough to protect yourself, professor?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: That's a great question, Alexis. If everyone wear N95 masks, then I think the protection will be adequate. However, now the airline has given just the surgical part-- mask is out. And surgical masks only have an efficiency around 50%, and therefore, it is not so safe. But even the airlines could leave the middle seat open. Then it will be pretty safe for the flying public.

BRIAN SOZZI: Professor, you say that Boeing is working on an advanced ventilation system. What is that, and when should that go into effect? When will we start seeing those?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: Yeah, Brian, that's a great question. We are actually working with Boeing for a long time to develop the new generation of the ventilation systems. And unfortunately, the-- our research results couldn't be used for this pandemic, but I think that Boeing definitely realized that this is a problem, and I hope that, in the next two or three years, they can put this system into use.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Professor, how comfortable are you getting on an airplane right now? Have-- have you-- if you don't mind me asking, have you been on an airplane recently, and do you plan to take any trips flying soon?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: Alexis, to be honest, so far I have not been in an airplane, but definitely if it's suitable measures and to protect myself, and I will go to the airplane. For example, I would use the masks, and I will probably put the goggles on, and I will bring wipes to wipe all the surfaces I might touch. And I think with a lot of measures then the risk will be reasonable to be accepted by me.

BRIAN SOZZI: Professor, just what your-- your understanding of the situation-- so the airline is using electrostatic disinfecting sprayers. I've seen photos of the stuff. I've seen videos out there on Twitter. To me, it looks safe. It looks like it's doing the job, but is it really doing the job?

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: I think [INAUDIBLE] a good measure. When you just spray lots of chemicals, it definitely will kill the germs. However, it depends on how frequently you clean the airplane. If you just clean one time a day, that would be-- wouldn't be sufficient, because until then, the different flights-- you might sit in the seat that a patient was sitting. And therefore, your airplane needed to do this disinfection for every flight. And that will cost time. That might not the make the airplane-- especially the airlines profitable if they're having to spend a lot of time in cleaning.

BRIAN SOZZI: All right, let's leave it there. Professor Yan Chen of Purdue-- Purdue University School of Mechanical Engineering. Thanks so much for taking some time this morning.

QINGYAN 'YAN' CHEN: Thank you very much.