Flying may start to look a little more normal from next month as Delta Airlines becomes the last major carrier to start offering passengers the middle seat again from May 1.
As well as provoking more arguments over the armrests, the decision by airlines to resume filling their middle seats has sparked controversy for reducing the amount of social distance between passengers and potentially contributing to an increased spread in Covid-19.
According to a recent CDC study, cheerily titled the ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’, blocking middle seats could reduce the risk of airline passengers’ exposure to Covid-19 by between 25 and 50 per cent, depending on how the cabin is configured and the number of infectious passengers onboard.
Using mannequins and a similar but less deadly respiratory virus called bacteriophage MS2, the study found that if an infectious person is sitting two seats away from you, your risk of being exposed to the Covid-19 virus decreases by 23% compared to if they were sat right next to you.
This might seem blindingly obvious to most airline passengers, particularly after an entire year of being told to keep our distance from one another. However, on closer inspection the study is not as wholly convincing as it seems.
For one thing the mannequins used in the study were not wearing masks, as opposed to actual airline passengers who have been required to wear a face covering by law since January and have been using them in practice virtually since the pandemic began.
This is a hugely important detail as, according to some doctors, wearing a mask properly reduces your chance of being infected with Covid by as much as 65%.
Additionally, the study failed to take into account the other highly effective measures airlines have put in place to help curb the spread of the virus. For instance, a study backed by the Department of Defense found that the use of High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on aircraft significantly reduced the chances of a virus being transmitted from person to person during a flight.
It is also increasingly less likely that an infected person would ever step onto an aircraft in the first place. New daily Covid-19 cases are currently lower than they have been since the Summer while over a quarter of the US population are fully vaccinated and 40% have received at least one dose.
Added to this, the fact that all travelers coming from overseas have to present a negative coronavirus test certificate from the past three days means the likelihood that you would be sat next to someone with Covid-19 on an aircraft is incredibly minimal.
No wonder then that the CEO of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, has compared the possibility of contracting Covid-19 on an aircraft to being struck by lightning. Indeed, of the 1.2 billion airline passengers who have flown in the past 12 months, only 44 cases of potential inflight Covid-19 transmission have ever been documented.
Of course the risk from coronavirus generally remains very real and airlines are still very much alert to it. Most major carriers are allowing passengers to switch off of busy flights at no extra charge, while many are running free testing coronavirus centers inside hub airports to further minimise the risk of contagion.
Passenger safety remains the top priority for airlines, but demand for air travel is expected to increase dramatically over the next few months. By cautiously re-opening middle seats and maintaining other protective measures, airlines can help to safely reunite families, bring back vacations and kickstart the US economy.