As more airplanes return to the skies, airports and airlines continue to enforce measures designed to keep passengers as safe as possible while Covid-19 remains a problem.
But even though face masks and temperature checks are commonplace -- as are destination requirements for proof of vaccination or negative test -- there's still a possibility that a passenger could develop Covid symptoms mid-flight.
On a packed airplane, it can be tricky to actually isolate a symptomatic traveler in line with the two-meter distance recommended by global aviation body IATA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's what Airbus' PaxCASE (Passenger Containment Area for Symptomatic Events) concept is intended for -- its semi-transparent plastic sheeting encircles a potentially infectious passenger in an isolation bubble.
Ingo Wuggetzer, vice president of cabin marketing at Airbus, tells CNN Travel that PaxCASE is designed to either be in a fixed position in the airplane cabin -- on a kind of curtain rail -- or work as removable sheeting, to be fixed into place on the ceiling by strong tape.
The barrier would encircle one seat row, cutting off three seats -- including the one occupied by the symptomatic passenger.
"It's a very simple, easy principle, applied by the crew in case in case of emergency need," explains Wuggetzer.
The concept has been nominated in the Clean and Safe Air Travel category in the 2021 Crystal Cabin Awards, which focus on the latest trends in airplane interior innovation.
The Crystal Cabin Awards usually has eight categories, but this year is focused on two key awards that recognize where aviation is right now: the Clean and Safe Air Travel category and the Judges Choice category.
Real time response
In spring 2020, the continuing global spread of Covid-19 and the ensuing shutdown of the aviation industry prompted a wave of airplane seat and cabin innovation.
"There was a kind of real panic because of the crisis, what to do and what can we do," says Wuggetzer.
Wuggetzer says Airbus dreamed up PaxCASE during that period -- as the pandemic ground global air travel to a halt, Airbus designers took to the drawing board to come up with some new concepts for safe flying.
"We created, I think, more than 2,000 ideas," recalls Wuggetzer.
Airbus representatives then spoke to airlines about some of the strongest concepts, with PaxCASE among them.
A year or so later, most of the more high-spec concepts that hit the headlines have not materialized.
Wuggetzer points out that much has changed since spring 2020. For one, there's more understanding of how the virus works and how it spreads. Plus, vaccines and testing are more widely available, at least in some markets.
The goal is that current worldwide government and airline restrictions will sift out infectious passengers before they end up sat next to you on a plane.
IATA stipulates that "the risk of contracting Covid-19, when wearing a mask on board, is very low."
So while PaxCASE might be a hit with the Crystal Cabin Awards judges, airlines aren't currently expressing much interest in the isolation device.
"I would say [it is] more in the end of the priority list," says Wuggetzer. "Essentially, nobody wants it, and to be honest I think nobody wants to use it for sure."
Instead, Wuggetzer says airlines are focused on making the in-flight experience as touch-free as possible, and are particularly interested in coating cabin surfaces with antimicrobial polishes.
Such solutions are also appealing because they don't involve retrofitting or redesigning a whole cabin.
The only downside, suggests Wuggetzer, is these concepts aren't visually striking, and therefore might be less apparent to passengers than, say, large dividing screens, or flashy new airplane seats.
Airbus is currently working on ways to advertize the less visible changes to passengers, to reassure travelers.
"Safe and simple"
While PaxCASE isn't in high demand, the design's recognition from the Crystal Cabin Awards suggests it does have legs.
"If you have a real problem, then this solution clearly provides a safe and simple way to deal with it, and I think that is why it's in there," says Wuggetzer, who also serves on the Crystal Cabin judging panel. Naturally he can't vote for any Airbus designs.
It's been exciting, Wuggetzer says, to see the nominated solutions for a safe travel experience, especially in a year when the aviation industry has tightened its belt.
"A lot of companies really laid off people and reduced their efforts in pushing innovations, so I think of a number of entries, we have been quite surprised," he says.
Other notable nominees include Alejandro Núñez Vicentes Chaise Longue Economy Seat project, which envisages a dual-level seat cabin, with each row alternating between on-floor seating, and seats elevated a few feet above ground.
The full list of this year's Crystal Cabin Awards nominees can be viewed here. Winners are expected to be announced at this year's Aircraft Interiors Expo, which will take place virtually in September 2021.
Top photo courtesy Airbus