Leaving middle seats unoccupied in planes can significantly reduce the risk of passengers’ exposure to coronavirus compared to full-capacity flights, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was released Wednesday.
The researchers found that by leaving middle seats empty in both single-aisle and double-aisle cabins, the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 is reduced by 23% to 57%, depending on the measures taken to distance passengers.
A 23% exposure reduction was noted for a single passenger who was in the same row and two seats away from the coronavirus source — compared with exposure when that source was in an adjacent middle seat.
For a full 120-passenger cabin, the research showed risk of exposure to coronavirus dropped 35% to 39.4%.
And 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 coronavirus sources and other passengers, the study states.
“This laboratory-based model predicts a 23% to 57% reduction in exposure to viable virus particles when middle seats on an airline are kept vacant,” the study authors wrote.
The findings suggest that “increasing physical distance between passengers and lowering passenger density could help reduce potential COVID-19 exposures during air travel.”
The research, completed in November 2020, was published in the federal government’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. It relied on an analysis of data from a 2017 pandemic flu study of virus aerosol dispersion in mock aircraft cabins and “mannequins with realistic passenger heat emission.” The authors emphasized the study looked at exposure to the virus, not actual transmission of the virus.
It comes as restrictions lift and life seems to be going back to normal with more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Among American airlines, only Delta Air Lines is still block middle seats and that practice will end at the end of April.
Meanwhile, the CDC has other guidelines in place for travelers to ensure lower risk of transmission, including mask wearing and regular hand washing, and self-monitoring for symptoms.
The CDC also recommends passengers not travel until they’re fully vaccinated.