The CDC says empty middle seats reduce COVID-19 exposure on flights. Will airlines bring social distancing back?

Blocking middle seats on airplanes reduces the risk of COVID-19 exposure, according to a study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research, done in conjunction with Kansas State University, found a 23% to 57% reduction in exposure to “viable” virus particles when middle seats are vacant.

The conclusion: “Physical distancing of airplane passengers, including through policies such as middle seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 on aircraft.”

Airlines have abandoned the pandemic practice of blocking seats to maintain social distance between travelers.

Delta Air Lines is the only U.S. carrier still blocking middle seats in economy, and that practice will end May 1. Southwest stopped blocking seats Dec. 1.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has repeatedly said there is no way to keep passengers 6 feet apart on a plane, and chief communication officer Josh Earnest said last summer that blocking seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.

“The CDC just dropped a bombshell on the airline industry,” said Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “That’s really what this report is.”

Airlines deferred comment on the CDC study to their trade group, Airlines for America.

The group’s statement did not address the study but reiterated that airlines have a host of measures to prevent virus transmission on planes, including hospital-grade ventilation systems, strict face mask requirements, preflight health forms and intensified cleaning of planes.

The group pointed to Harvard research, paid for in part by the airline industry, that concluded that the ventilation on planes, together with other measures, reduces the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 to a point where it “effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights.”  

COVID-19 exposure on flights: More common than you think

The bottom line for travelers: Don’t expect airlines to resume blocking seats or, in the case of Delta, to keep blocking them. (The CDC never required social distancing on planes. Airlines started the practice to give travelers confidence to book.)

Airlines lost billions in 2020 and are doing everything they can to fill their planes as travel resumes. On Easter Sunday and the following day, Delta temporarily lifted its middle seat block to rebook travelers stranded by flight cancellations caused by staffing issues and other factors. 

Domestic travel is rebounding strongly: Passenger counts at U.S. airports have topped 1 million every day since March 10. The number of travelers had fallen below 100,000 a year ago and didn’t top a million again until October.

Bookings got a boost this month when the CDC said vaccinated travelers can resume travel at low risk.

CDC middle seat study: Mask use not included 

The data for the social distancing study was collected before the pandemic began, so the effects of mandatory airline passenger mask use on COVID-19 exposure were not measured.

The CDC said the fact that mannequins in the study weren’t wearing masks does not negate the findings, because the study measured aerosol exposure on the plane, and masks are “more effective at reducing fomite (objects such as clothes that are likely to carry infection) and droplet exposures than aerosol (airborne) exposures.”

Glatter said the reduction in COVID-19 exposure without masks actually buttresses the CDC study’s argument for keeping middle seats open.

“That’s the reality of this: even without the masks they were able to reduce exposure, which is quite impressive,” he said. “Imagine wearing a mask. That would be even more impactful.”

Glatter said the findings, and the fact that just one-quarter of Americans are vaccinated, suggest passengers should keep spreading out on planes until the pandemic is over.

“There’s no question we should keep those middle seats open,” he said.

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