Banning airplane middle seats could dramatically help cut coronavirus risk on flights

Eliminating the middle seat on planes may help cut already low on-flight coronavirus risk even more, a new research paper from Massachusetts Institute of Technology has suggested.

The paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, pegs the risk of contracting COVID-19 from nearby passengers on a full flight at about 1 in 4,300. According to the research findings, that risk drops to 1 in 7,700 when the middle seat is not booked.

The research paper, titled “Covid-19 Risk Among Airline Passengers: Should the Middle Seat Stay Empty?” was penned by award-winning MIT statistician Arnold Barnett and published in MedRxiv earlier this month.

The calculations, Barnett writes, “do suggest a measurable reduction in COVID-19 risk when middle seats on aircraft are deliberately kept open.”

He also notes that “it is not clear that the risk of getting infected during a flight is any higher than the risk associated with everyday activities during the pandemic.”

The paper explores the risks associated with full flights as airlines are once again beginning to book planes to full capacity following months of blocking off the middle seat, or grounding flights altogether due to the pandemic.

“The airlines are setting their own policies but the airlines and the public should know about the risk implications of their choices,” Barnett said to ZDNet of his findings.

The study was based on estimations that passengers were wearing masks, which cuts risk down 82 percent.

However, the risk estimates “do not consider the possibility of infection during boarding and leaving the plane, from contagious passengers who walk down the aisle to the lavatory, or within the lavatory itself.”

By comparison, Barnett adds the estimates imply the COVID-19 “mortality risks to uninfected air travelers are higher than those associated with plane crashes but probably less than one in one million.”

As of July, American Airlines and United have both started booking middle seats.

JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have stated that their middle seat ban will run through the end of July, while Delta and Southwest will continue theirs until September.