Leaving Airplane Middle Seats Empty Could Cut COVID-19 Risk in Half

Airplane passenger

Staff Report | DFW Newsflash | July 2020

As the airline industry slowly rebounds, questions about safety protocols remain at the forefront in the midst of the pandemic.

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found keeping middle seats on flights could reduce the incidence of COVID transmission between passengers by up to 50 percent. This information comes almost two weeks after American Airlines announced plans to return to full flights on July 1.

Arnold Barnett, the author of the study, noted his analysis is a rough estimate of the risk associated with air travel during the pandemic. While conceding airlines have the right to set their own safety policies and procedures, it is important carriers and consumers know and understand the hazards that could accompany the decision to fly.

Passengers are “far” more likely to die from COVID-19 contracted during air travel than a plane crash, according to the study, which is not peer-reviewed.

The airline industry has taken a severe financial hit over the past several months due to national and international lockdowns to deal with the spread of the novel Coronavirus. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta all announced their own furlough or layoff plans, as cancelled and scarcely booked flights became more common and federally-backed loan and grant programs that provided tens of billions of dollars in aid failed to adequately address the downturn.

Along with American Airlines, United Airlines has also decided to book middle seats on their planes. Southwest Airlines and Delta have opted to keep the moratorium on middle seat bookings until September, while Jet Blue is following suit on its larger aircraft until September 8.