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CDC Report Favors Empty Middle Seats, but Airlines Probably Won’t Like It

CDC Report Favors Empty Middle Seats, but Airlines Probably Won’t Like It
Joe Cortez

With aviation on a rapid course towards recovery, the Centers for Disease Control says keeping middle seats empty could be healthier for everyone until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. An early release paper suggests not booking the middle seat could reduce exposure by up to 57 percent – but airlines are more interested in accommodating all flyers.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests keeping middle seats open could be safer, but airlines may not want to hear the advice. In a early release paper, researchers at the government agency suggest that empty middle seats could reduce COVID-19 exposure by as much as 57 percent.

Despite “Close Proximity for Long Periods,” No Middle Seat Flyers Helps Reduce Exposure

The report opens with a common fact: “Aircraft can hold large numbers of persons in close proximity for long periods, which can increase the risk for transmission of infectious disease.” At the height of the pandemic, airlines collectively agreed to block middle seats to encourage social distancing and help travelers feel comfortable.

Research now suggests that it wasn’t just a gimmick: Keeping an open middle seat between travelers may have actually helped reduce exposure to the novel Coronavirus. Depending on the model used, the scientists suggest the risk could be cut in half.

“A 23% exposure reduction was observed for a single passenger who was in the same row and two seats away from the SARS-COV-2 source, rather than in an adjacent middle seat,” the paper reads. “When quantifying exposure reduction to a full 120-passenger cabin rather than to a single person, exposure reductions ranging from 35.0% to 39.4% were predicted. A 57% exposure reduction was observed under the vacant middle seat condition in a scenario involving a three-row section that contained a mix of SARS-CoV-2 sources and other passengers.”

However, airlines may not be so willing to continue adopting the advice in their operations. Speaking on behalf of the aviation industry to Business Insider, a spokesperson for Airlines for America stood behind previous talking points that air circulation and mandatory face masks could reduce flyer’s risks of contracting COVID-19.

“Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk,” the Airlines for America statement reads, according to Insider “And research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low.”

With Travel Resuming, Airlines Abandon Middle Seat Blocking

As the COVID-19 vaccines are distributed much more widely, flyers are buying more tickets, leading airlines to drop their middle seat blocks. American Airlines was the first to book flights “to capacity” in June 2020 after creating a travel health advisory panel, while JetBlue held out until December 2020. Delta Air Lines is the final carrier not booking middle seats, with their policy expiring on April 30, 2021.

View Comments (6)


  1. rylan

    April 15, 2021 at 6:13 am

    Airlines aren’t going to block middle seats anymore unless forced to or the govt pays for the seats.

  2. pmiranda

    April 15, 2021 at 10:05 am

    Even in normal times I wish they’d block the middle seat, unless they’re willing to provide decent row spacing. Either way, I’d rather pay 10% more than be a sardine.

  3. MRM

    April 15, 2021 at 10:30 am

    I have to admit: My enjoyment of flying started to wane about a decade ago with all the changes that have occurred. With the behaviors that now have been getting worse even Pre-COVID, I don’t really look forward to flying AT ALL anymore. But hey – there seems to be a lot of people ready to crowd aboard a flying tube and trust that they’re all properly vaccinated, medicated and well-behaved. More power to them!

  4. viajero1

    April 15, 2021 at 10:32 am

    So will the Biden Administration mandate keeping the middle seat free?

  5. Dr.Ells

    April 16, 2021 at 1:16 am

    Neither democrat nor republican can keep the air clean!
    They are so “expert” at tossing the blame at one another, the globe just suffers. Take their bloated salaries away, and watch them quit. THEN we can breathe freely.

  6. SamirD

    April 20, 2021 at 11:04 am

    I moved all our air travel to Delta because they blocked seats. I felt that this was in line with my own thinking of simply staying as far away from other people as possible, and it is good to see the research backing up my hunch. As the airline decide to let everyone and everything fly again ‘like normal’, I will be grounding us to avoid being caught up in the problems from this decision.

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