An Empty Middle Seat Significantly Reduces Your COVID Risk In the Air


Travel is taking off once more, and as anyone who’s flown recently can attest, flights are filling up fast. With reduced schedules and fewer fares between ports, many of the most frequented routes end up at or close to capacity, which is great news for airlines and the tourism industry in general.

Increased hygiene measures and mandatory masks help passengers and crew to feel safe in the air, but a new study is making a case for cancelling the middle seat on aircrafts altogether. According to new findings, passengers aboard a flight can reduce exposure to airborne coronavirus by 23 to 57%, just by leaving the middle seat unoccupied. Basically social distancing at 35,000 feet.

“Farther is always better in terms of exposure,” said Byron Jones, a mechanical engineer at Kansas State University and co-author of the study, according to the New York Times. “It’s true in airplanes, it’s true in movie theatres, it’s true in restaurants, it’s true everywhere.”

But this study is not without its flaws. For starters, the research did not take into account mask-wearing by passengers, which as we know makes all the difference, and secondly, uses US data and statistics. The threat of COVID-19 in the US is significant and near-incomparable to Australia at this point, so Aussies would do well to take this one with a pinch of salt.

“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,” Joseph Allen, a ventilation expert at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the publication. “We know that masking is the single most effective measure at reducing emissions of respiratory aerosols.”

Essentially, as long as Australians practice good hygiene, follow check-in protocols, continue to wear masks, and do not travel if they are feeling unwell, our skies will be considered safe, and travel can resume as close to normal as possible while we wait for international borders to open. Even more so when those incredible airplane disinfecting robots that are currently being tested for global use are finally approved.

Scoring an empty middle seat (or even a whole row) by happy accident is great for the fact you won’t have to fight over an armrest, but is not a solution for a struggling travel industry that needs bums on seats to make a successful comeback.

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