Leaving the middle seat empty on commercial airline flight could significantly reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has found.
The study, released Wednesday, found that the risk of exposure to the coronavirus on an aircraft is cut by 23 to 57 percent if middle seats are left vacant, compared with a full flight.
“Based on this laboratory model, a vacant middle seat reduces risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 from nearby passengers,” the study says.
“These data suggest that increasing physical distance between passengers and lowering passenger density could help reduce potential COVID-19 exposures during air travel. Physical distancing of airplane passengers, including through policies such as middle seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in SARS-CoV-2 exposure risk,” the researchers wrote.
However, the study does not account for the use of face masks — as data for it was collected before the coronavirus pandemic in 2017 “as part of a pandemic influenza research initiative.
Travelers are required to wear face masks on airplanes in the US, though may typically take them off briefly to eat and drink.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, many US airlines limited seating on planes as a way to reduce exposure to the virus — but all except Delta have now reversed that policy. Delta will stop leaving middle seats empty on May 1.
Trade organization Airlines for America responded to the CDC study in a statement, saying: “Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low,” according to AviationPros.com.