Empty middle seats have been a sticking point for some on commercial flights since the pandemic began. But little by little, major airlines have unblocked the middle seat to allow more travelers to fly.
Now, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests this might not be the safest route. The data was based on laboratory modeling of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) on single-aisle and twin-aisle planes. It found that leaving the middle seat vacant reduces the risk of contracting COVID-19 by 23 percent to 57 percent when compared with having a full plane. For a single passenger in the same row and two seats away from someone infected with COVID-19, the risk of exposure to the virus was reduced by 23 percent. However, blocking the middle seat reduces the risk to other passengers by up to 57 percent when several people aboard the aircraft are infected.
“Physical distancing of airplane passengers, including through policies such as middle-seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 on aircraft,” the report concludes.
As of May 1, Delta will stop blocking the middle seat on its flights, joining other major airlines in the U.S. that are operating at full capacity.
The study has raised concerns, but infectious disease experts point out that there are some major caveats to the findings. A big one is that this is a modeling study — not an analysis of real-world data. “Modeling is good for hypothesis generation, but it’s not always real-world practical,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life.
Another big sticking point is that the study looked at potential infection rates when passengers were not masked. "Airlines are requiring people to wear masks on airplanes right now,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. It is worth noting, however, that people remove their masks to eat and drink on flights.
In fact there is solid research about COVID-19 transmission on planes. A case report published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in March analyzed an 18-hour flight of citizens and permanent residents who were returning to New Zealand via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The flight contained 86 passengers who came from five different countries before their layover in Dubai. Some of the passengers were tested for SARS-CoV-2 during a layover in Malaysia and, once they arrived in New Zealand, the passengers were required to undergo managed isolation and quarantine for 14 days. During the quarantine, seven of the passengers tested positive for the virus, including five who had tested negative during their layover.
Another case report that was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases in November 2020 detailed how 16 people tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 after a 10-hour flight from London to Hanoi, Vietnam.
But while it’s possible to get infected with COVID-19 on a plane, Adalja points out that this isn’t happening often. "We have not seen a lot of transmission on planes — they haven’t been big drivers of transmission,” he says.
There are also vaccinations to consider — which dramatically lower the risk of being infected with COVID-19 on a flight. That’s why Adalja says it’s safe to fly on a plane right now “if you're fully vaccinated and wearing a mask.”
But Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that he’s hesitant to use the word “safe” to describe air travel at this time. “‘Safe’ is sort of a loaded term,” he says. But, he adds, “it is safer to fly if you are vaccinated vs. not.”
The CDC issued new guidance for vaccinated people in early April that says that fully vaccinated people “can resume domestic travel” and don’t need to get tested for COVID-19 before or after the travel. However, the CDC still urges vaccinated people to continue to wear masks and try to maintain physical distancing while traveling.
If you’re taking a flight in the near future, Russo recommends being fully vaccinated first. “Vaccination doesn’t provide 100 percent protection, but it dramatically lowers your risk of contracting COVID-19 and from getting a severe form of it,” he says. Russo also recommends wearing a mask and trying to get a window seat, given that it’s safer than an aisle seat due to less exposure to others.
Read more from Yahoo Life
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.