CDC study: Leaving middle seat open on planes could reduce COVID-19 exposure

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found leaving the middle seat vacant on planes could reduce COVID-19 exposure for passengers, supporting a practice that has now been abandoned by most airlines.

The research released on Wednesday predicted that keeping the middle seat empty on flights could reduce the risk of exposure by 23 percent to 57 percent depending on the seating occupancy model.

The highest reduction of exposure, at 57 percent, was observed when studying three rows of passengers with and without passengers in the middle of three seats.

“These data suggest that increasing physical distance between passengers and lowering passenger density could help reduce potential COVID-19 exposures during air travel,” the study reads. “Physical distancing of airplane passengers, including through policies such as middle seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in SARS-CoV-2 exposure risk.”

No masks: But the study did not examine how masks could affect the COVID-19 exposure in different seating arrangements because the original portion of the study at Kansas State University was conducted in 2017, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Delta Air Lines is the only U.S. airline that is currently blocking passengers from booking middle seats but has announced the seats will become available starting in May.