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Open middle seats could reduce Covid exposure of maskless air travelers, CDC study shows

View of the cabin of a Delta flight between Minneapolis and Baltimore on April 25, 2020.
Sebastien Duval | AFP | Getty Images

Keeping middle seats open on aircraft could reduce passengers’ exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19 by more than half, according to a new study published Wednesday.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kansas State University found in laboratory modeling that passengers’ exposure to SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, on wide-body and narrow-body planes could be reduced between 23% and 57% if airlines leave middle seats open — even if they aren’t wearing masks.

The study comes after airlines have spent much of the last year touting stepped-up cleaning procedures and onboard filtration to calm travelers worried about flying during the pandemic. Travel demand has since rebounded somewhat as more of the public is vaccinated against Covid-19.

U.S. airlines including JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines capped capacity on board their planes earlier in the pandemic but have since done away with the policy, citing hospital-grade filtration on board and other safety measures as limiting the risk of exposure on board. Delta Air Lines plans to stop blocking middle seats next month, the last U.S. airline to make the change. It paused its capacity caps during Easter weekend, though, during a staffing shortage that contributed to dozens of flight cancellations.

The researchers’ study did not examine mask-wearing on flights, which became an airline and federal government policy during the pandemic.

However, they cited a New Zealand case study that said “some virus aerosol is emitted from an infectious masked passenger, such that distancing could still be useful.”

They used a surrogate virus to stand in for airborne SARS-CoV-2.

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