With Updated CDC Guidance, Are Open Middle Seats Less Important?

airline passengers in cabin wearing masks
Credit: Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images

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With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) providing updated information on COVID-19, such as surfaces having a low probability of transmitting it, won’t keeping middle seats open on airplanes take on less urgency?

Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief Karen Walker answers:

The issue of leaving open middle seats should be taking on less urgency, but it isn’t, as evidenced by the move on July 6 by a U.S. senator to introduce a bill that would compel airlines to keep middle seats free. This is an ill-informed and dangerous proposal.

First of all, many family groups will want to sit together, so if middle seats are denied, parents and children could be separated. Second, even if middle seats were kept free, the separation between an aisle and a window seat on a typical narrowbody in the main cabin is significantly less than the typical 6-ft. social-distancing requirement that people are advised to take on land. Third, airlines everywhere are already incurring deep financial losses and taking on huge debts to survive after demand for air travel fell to almost zero overnight and 85% of the world’s fleet was grounded. In normal circumstances, the majority of airlines need average load factors of 70-75% to break even. When demand for air travel begins to return, if airlines have to keep load factors to around 60% to accommodate “open middle seat” rules, they will lose even more money and go bankrupt.

People, including lawmakers and medical workers, are posting pictures of themselves in full cabins, and those photos are going viral, with the implied message that such flights are dangerous. This is completely untrue—there has not been a case of any of the people in those photos contracting COVID-19 from their flights. Their biggest risk of doing so would be in taxis, shops, restaurants or other places they might have visited on their journey, especially if those places did not require masks.

That’s the story that needs to be told—not the falsehood about middle seats. North America airlines and some European airlines are announcing plans to return to selling all seats this summer. They will only be able to do that if they can successfully message to lawmakers and the wider public why that is a safe plan.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.