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There’s a COVID Vaccine, so Is It Safe for Airlines to Fill the Middle Seat?

Airlines and medical experts spar over whether or not the middle seat should be blocked.

When the pandemic came to the United States at the beginning of 2020, airlines had to make significant adjustments to their health safety standards. One major change focused on the middle seat, with many carriers deciding to leave it vacant. However, now that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for distribution, airlines are backing out of that policy. Now the question stands, does filling the middle seat increase the spread of the coronavirus, or does it not make a difference at all?

What Do Experts Say?

Since the start of the pandemic, airlines have been split on whether selling the middle seat will help the containment of COVID-19. Carriers like Dublin-based Ryanair, who has been filling the middle seat, called the idea “idiotic” because the space between the window and aisle is not the recommended six feet. Furthermore, United Airlines has said the practice is a “PR strategy” instead of a safety strategy. On the other hand, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is adamant that blocking the seat is the only way to practice social distancing on aircraft. So, which side is right?

MIT professor and aviation expert Aaron Barnett has weighed in on the debate with his research paper, titled, “COVID-19 Risk Among Airline Passengers: Should the Middle Seat Stay Empty?” Because of the obvious ethical reasons against human testing, he used models to determine the probability of COVID-19 transmission on aircraft with the middle seat open. In his study, Dr. Barnett assumed a passenger was infected with COVID-19, and all passengers on the plane were wearing masks. He also factored in the protection rate of face coverings and that the primary source of infection would come from other people in the same row. Using these metrics, Dr. Barnett found that on a flight of two hours (the average length of a domestic flight), passengers had a 1 in 4,300 chance of contracting the virus if the middle seat is filled. If the seats are blocked, that number decreases to 1 in 7,700—cutting the probability by more than half.

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While Dr. Barnett’s study has merit and is supported by studies published in The Lancet and the Journal of Air Transportation Management, not everyone is convinced. American Airlines believes the use of masks, enhanced aircraft sanitation, and air filtration systems are the best defense against the spread of the virus. However, the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Robert Redfield, criticized American for its decision to book flights to capacity. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed Redfield, expressing concern over the carrier’s decision. Nevertheless, American’s assertation is backed up by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an aviation group that sets global standards for airlines.

In a study published in October, IATA found that of the 1.2 billion people who flew between January and July of this year, only 44 were confirmed to have contracted the virus on a flight. Boeing and Airbus agree with IATA, stating high-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) and masks keep aircraft cabins safe. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer explained that face coverings alone would decrease the chance of transmission by six times, which is more than blocking the middle seats.

What Do Passengers Think?

Regardless of what the experts say, passengers will have their own opinions on whether or not they feel safe with the middle seat filled. In a survey conducted by the International Air Transport Association in June, 65% of respondents said sitting next to an infected person was their greatest concern when flying. Another data set collected by travel planning app, App in the Air, found “middle seat restricted” as the second-most coronavirus-related filter for flight searches.

Opinions shared on social media and travel forums suggest many passengers prefer to fly with the middle seat open and are disappointed in American and United’s take on social distancing. The New York Times pinned a reader comment to its article covering health safety on aircraft. The user said, “Airlines should not be permitted to fly planes where social distancing is not followed. If a passenger has coronavirus and is sitting elbow-to-elbow with another passenger who has it, I find it difficult to believe that is a safe scenario, even if we accept the spin of the airlines’ PR departments regarding how well air is circulated on the airplanes. Coronavirus arrived in this country on airplanes, and the virus is still raging out of control in most parts of the country.” The comment received hundreds of upvotes.

Browsing other outlets, it appears this is a common belief among other passengers as well. Twitter and Facebook users bashed Southwest and JetBlue when they announced they would be unblocking the middle seats starting this holiday season. Passengers were particularly upset that the announcement came after they booked their flights.

Personally, I have flown three times for essential reasons since March, twice on Southwest and once on Frontier. On Southwest, I felt totally safe with the middle seat open and my mask on but thought social distancing should be more strictly enforced on the jet bridge. On Frontier, I had a completely full flight, but I was lucky to have gotten a window seat. I just curled up and leaned as far away from the person in the middle seat as possible. While I am not 100% comfortable with the middle seat being filled, I do trust the HEPA filtration systems and wear a mask, and have fortunately not contracted the virus on any of my flights.

What Is the Middle Seat Policy Going Forward?

United, American, Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, and Sun Country have all been operating with the middle seat filled for most of the pandemic. In contrast, Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest have practiced social distancing since the beginning. However, with the year coming to a close, the latter four are adjusting their middle seat policies. Here’s what you need to know.

Delta is the only airline that is extending its middle seat policy. The airline announced in November that the middle seat would remain blocked through March 30, 2021.

Southwest, Alaska, Hawaiian, and JetBlue have all phased out their middle seat policies. JetBlue is currently booking its flights to 85% capacity through January 7, with no booking restrictions beginning January 8. Meanwhile, Southwest started selling every seat again on December 1, Hawaiian will end its policy on December 16, and Alaska will begin phasing out its practice on January 6.

Bottom Line

There does not appear to be a definite answer on whether the middle seat helps minimize the spread of the virus or not. However, medical experts suggest that the probability of transmission on aircraft is much lower with the seat left vacant. As a passenger, you will have to decide the safest avenue to take, especially now that every airline except Delta will be filling flights in 2021. If you choose to fly, always wear your mask, practice social distancing in the airport, and do not travel if you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who is infected.

coachjan January 6, 2021

I will be flying Delta in March. Chosen because they promised not to fill the middle seat. That says to me they care about me and will do their best to keep me safe. 

annenonymous6346 January 6, 2021

Ha ha! I cut and paste the comment about how the vacant seat reduces transmission from 1:4300 to 1:7700 and comment on the accuracy of the "more than half" statement. "Your comment contains words that aren't allowed" (absolutely nothing contentious). Removed my comment leaving only text pasted from article. "Your comment contains words that aren't allowed". Removed THEIR article text leaving comment box blank. "Your comment contains words that aren't allowed". Beam me out of here Scotty!

cathywrobel8088 January 5, 2021

The virus is the worst it's ever been, hospitals are in crisis because of the overwhelming number of cases, and you're asking if it's time to fill the middle seat on airplanes????

theMage January 4, 2021

I love how you disproved your own point by NOT catching anything. For a filter to be rated a HEPA filter it has to filter 99.97% of 0.3 micron particles. Covid is 0.6-1.6 microns. Your homemade mask does nothing of the kind. A N95 mask only filters 95% of 3 micron particles (useless against covid). One minute of breathing releases 750,000 covid particles if you are a carrier, and it takes breathing in 300 covid particles to get sick. Do the math. Unless you have an air supplied mask (SCBA), it is completely useless against this disease, other than showing your overlords your sheep-like compliance