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Blocking middle seats on planes reduces virus exposure, study says

CBS News logo CBS News 4/15/2021 CBSNews
a motorcycle that is sitting on a leather chair: seat for passenger with space for each chair on airplane for physical distancing. airline policy about travel during coronavirus or covid-19 virus pandemic. new normal concept © Getty Images/iStockphoto seat for passenger with space for each chair on airplane for physical distancing. airline policy about travel during coronavirus or covid-19 virus pandemic. new normal concept

A new study says leaving middle seats open could give airline passengers more protection from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kansas State University say the risk of passengers being exposed to the virus from an infected person on the plane could be reduced by 23% to 57% if middle seats are empty, compared with a full flight.

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The study released Wednesday supports the response of airlines that limited seating early in the pandemic. However, all major U.S. airlines except Delta now sell every seat they can. Delta will stop blocking middle seats on May 1.

Researchers estimated how far airborne virus particles travel inside a plane. They used mannequins that emitted aerosol to measure the flow of virus particles through airline cabin mock-ups.

The study, however, did not take into account the wearing of face masks because it was based on a previous study done in 2017, before the pandemic. Nor did it consider whether passengers are vaccinated against COVID-19. 

a group of people standing in a room: TSA: New pandemic U.S. travel record 03:24 © Provided by CBS News TSA: New pandemic U.S. travel record 03:24

The airlines argue that filters and air-flow systems on most planes make them safe when passengers wear face masks, as they are now required to do by federal regulation.

Airlines cite layers of preventative measures

Airlines for America, a trade group for the largest U.S. carriers, said airlines use several layers of measures to prevent the spread of the virus on planes, including face masks, asking passengers about their health, and stepped-up cleaning of cabins. The group cited a Harvard University report funded by the industry as showing that the risk of transmitting the coronavirus on planes is very low.

Airlines were divided last year over filling middle seats. While Delta, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue limited seating on planes, United never did and American only blocked seats for a short time. It was mostly an academic question, because relatively few flights last year were crowded. That is changing, however.

More than 1 million travelers have gone through U.S. airports each day for the past month. While that is still down more than one-third from the same period in 2019, more flights now are crowded. Around Easter weekend, Delta temporarily filled middle seats to accommodate passengers whose original flights were canceled because of staffing shortages.

The CDC says vaccinated people can travel in the U.S. at low risk to themselves, although the agency still recommends against nonessential travel.

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