Empty Middle Seats on Planes Cut Coronavirus Risk in Study


Keeping the middle seats vacant during a flight could reduce passengers’ exposure to airborne coronavirus by 23 to 57 percent, researchers reported in a new study that modeled how aerosolized viral particles spread through a simulated airplane cabin.

But the study may have overestimated the risks of traveling on a fully occupied plane, critics said, because it did not take into account mask-wearing by passengers.

“It’s important for us to know how aerosols spread in airplanes,” said Joseph Allen, a ventilation expert at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was not involved in the study. But he added, “I’m surprised to see this analysis come out now, making a big statement that middle seats should stay open as a risk-reduction approach, when the model didn’t include the impact of masking. We know that masking is the single most effective measure at reducing emissions of respiratory aerosols.”

Although scientists have documented several cases of coronavirus transmission on planes, airplane cabins are generally low-risk environments because they tend to have excellent air ventilation and filtration.

The laboratory experiments on virus dispersal in aircraft cabins were conducted several years before the current pandemic began, and did not account for any protection that wearing masks could provide.

Masking would reduce the amount of virus that infectious passengers emit into the cabin air and would likely lower the relative benefit of keeping middle seats open, Dr. Allen said.

The researchers acknowledge that the study has limitations, but they say that their results suggest that “physical distancing of aircraft passengers, including through policies such as middle-seat vacancy,” could be one of several strategies for reducing air passengers’ exposure to the virus.

The cost-benefit analysis is tricky for airlines. But purely from a health perspective, keeping middle seats open would be helpful, providing a buffer between an infectious person and others nearby, according to Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at Denver University who was not involved in the study. “Distance matters, for both aerosols and droplets,” he said.



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