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Should airlines keep middle seats open? It reduces COVID-19 risk by a big margin

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests closing down middle seats can reduce COVID-19 risk

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A man watches airplanes from the baggage claim area at the new Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

A man watches airplanes from the baggage claim area at the new Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests closing down middle seats on airplanes can reduce COVID-19 risk.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data that shows keeping middle seats open on airplanes can reduce the risk of COVID-19 by up to 57%.

The CDC data found a “23% to 57% reduction in exposure to viable virus particles when middle seats on an airline are kept vacant.”

  • This was the case on single-aisle and twin-aisle airplanes on which the middle seats were left open compared to when the seats were filled up.

How the CDC found its COVID-19 data

Researchers from CDC and Kansas State University linked up to simulate how virus particles moved throughout the plane when middle seats were left open compared to when they were filled.

Here’s how CNN explained the study:

The models were based on the spread of bacteriophage aerosols used as a surrogate to estimate the airborne spread of the coronavirus. Bacteriophages are viruses that can infect bacteria. The analysis did not measure the impact of wearing masks, which is currently required on flights, but the researchers noted that some virus aerosol can still be emitted from an infectious masked passenger and so distancing could still be useful. The models suggested that, with vacant middle seats, risk reduction ranged from 23%, which was observed for a single passenger who was in the same row but two seats away from an infectious passenger, to 57%, observed when middle seats were vacant across a section of three rows containing a mix of people with COVID-19 and other passengers.

Risk vs. transmission

The researchers wanted to make it clear that this only references exposure to COVID-19 and not necessarily transmission of the virus. Exposure represents when someone around you has been infected with the coronavirus, exposing you to it and possibly infecting you. Transmission represents when the virus is transmitted from one person to another, which leads to infection.

  • “It is important to recognize that the current study addresses only exposure and not transmission,” the researchers wrote.

Do airlines leave middle seats open?

Not really anymore. American Airlines, SouthwestJetBlue and Hawaiian airlines all had open middle seat policies early in the pandemic before canceling the rule, as I wrote for the Deseret News.

Delta airlines — which banned middle seats longer than any other major airline — announced it would end its policy on May 1, as I wrote for the Deseret News.