The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has waded into the debate on whether blocking middle seats on flights could reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, saying in a new study that the risk of exposure could tumble by between 23 and 57 percent if social distancing was maintained.
The study comes just two weeks before Delta Air Lines becomes the last U.S. carrier to abandon its middle seat blocking policy as domestic travel demand rebounds and more and more planes take to the skies without a spare seat in sight.
Conducted in partnership with Kansas State University, the CDC study concluded that leaving vacant middle seats to increase physical distancing could “provide additional reductions in SARS-CoV-2 exposure risk”. The study does, however, come with some important caveats.
The CDC admitted that the laboratory experiments for this study were conducted before the current pandemic so it didn’t take into account the routine and mandatory wearing of face masks to help reduce exposure.
Nor did it take into account the effect of vaccines in keeping people safe – instead, the study was just looking at the risk of exposure and not the risk of actual transmission. The study also said that the experiments were conducted in a higher humidity environment – which could have an impact on how far a virus droplet can travel.
Using different modelling approaches, the researchers found there was a 23 percent reduction to the risk of exposure when applied to a single passenger who was sat just two seats away from an infected passenger compared to sitting in the middle seat.
The exposure reduction dropped to as much as 57 percent when researchers looked at a three-row section that contained a mix of SARS-CoV-2 sources and other passengers.
Delta Air Lines said it took the decision to lift its middle seat block because of the success of the mass vaccination drive. The Atlanta-based airline also pointed to another study that concluded the risk of onboard transmission of COVID-19 on a full plane when everyone wears a face mask is just one in a million.
Other studies, however, have concluded that exposure to COVID-19 and inflight transmission could be increased when passengers are sat in close proximity to one another – even if they have taken a pre-departure test and been cleared to fly.
An earlier study published last summer concluded that blocking middle seats could reduce the risk of inflight transmission by nearly half. The airline industry dismisses those concerns, saying multiple layers of protection – including mask-wearing – are a good enough alternative to blocking middle seats.
Last year, United’s chief communications officer described middle seat blocking policies as a “PR strategy”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.