- A CDC report released Wednesday suggests middle-seat blocking reduces COVID-19 spread on airplanes.
- Airlines for America and analysts pushed back, saying the report didn’t consider new safety steps.
- The CDC also gave vaccinated people the green light to travel within the US earlier this month.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just reignited the debate on whether airlines should be blocking middle seats just as airlines thought it was settled.
A newly publicized study found that maskless flyers could spread COVID-19 at a higher rate when middle seats were not blocked, Insider’s Hilary Brueck reported. Flyers on opposite ends of a three-seat row with the middle open reduced their risk of exposure by 57%, the study said.
Multiple airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, deferred to the trade organization Airlines for America on the issue when reached for comment by Insider.
“Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low,” a spokesperson for Airlines for America told Insider, indicating no changes would be recommended to airlines.
The trade organization also pointed to Department of Defense and Harvard studies, as well as data from the International Air Transport Association, finding low transmission rates among passengers since the start of the pandemic.
“Since the start of 2020, there have been 44 confirmed or possible cases of COVID-19 associated with a flight,” IATA found. “Over the same period, some 1.2 billion passengers have traveled.”
The airline industry was split early on in the pandemic between those that blocked seats and those that didn’t. But more airlines started abandoning the policy after studies from the Department of Defense and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health declared air travel to be largely safe, regardless of seat blocking.
Delta Air Lines is the only major US airline still blocking middle seats but will stop doing so May 1.
Sun Country Airlines, which doesn’t block middle seats, told Insider: “We do not currently have plans to change any of our existing seating policies.”
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local government, and our industry peers to ensure we’re maintaining top health and safety measures,” Erin Blanton, a spokesperson for the airline, said.
Allegiant Air referred Insider to the National Air Carriers Association, which did not respond to a request for comment, while Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines also did not respond to a request for comment.
Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider this likely wouldn’t change the course of airlines that had already decided to fill planes.
“The airlines will look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s nice – moving along,'” Harteveldt said.
Airlines are riding high after a long year of losses, and some are starting to report positive cash flow. Harteveldt said airlines likely would not revert to blocking middle seats unless mandated by the federal government.
“All the signs are pointing towards a very good summer travel season, at least in terms of demand,” Harteveldt said, adding this announcement likely would not jeopardize the gains made by airlines, as people have shown they’re eager to travel.
The researchers also conducted the study in 2017 with mannequins that were not wearing masks, for example, while wearing a mask on an airplane is now mandated by federal law, Harteveldt said. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is also in high gear, with nearly 40% of the American public having received at least one dose, which Harteveldt said was not factored into the findings.
The CDC also said in early April that traveling within the US was safe for vaccinated people who continued to follow precautions like mask-wearing and washing hands with soap.
More than 1 million travelers have flown in the US every day since March 11, according to Transportation Security Administration data. But if flyers are skeptical of traveling, many airlines have made it easier to change and cancel bookings.