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Airlines unblock middle seats despite CDC stance on the matter

An industry trade group is citing studies showing air travel is safe regardless of physical distancing

Photo (c) xavierarnau - Getty Images
Major airlines are rejecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s stance on keeping middle seats on airplanes vacant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

On Wednesday, the CDC released a report referencing a lab-based study which found that blocking middle seats on planes would lead to a 23% to 57% reduction in flight passengers being exposed to the virus. Passengers on opposite ends of a three-seat row with the middle open cut their risk of exposure by 57%, according to the study. 

Despite these findings, airlines -- eager to get back to pre-pandemic levels of operation -- appear to be sticking to their original plans for unblocking middle seats. 

Airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have all announced plans to unblock middle seats and have referred media outlets to industry trade group Airlines for America for additional information on the matter. The group confirmed that no changes would be recommended to airlines because several large studies have concluded that the risk of onboard transmission is low. 

"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 the group stated.

Other precautions still in place

Airlines started blocking middle seats early on during the pandemic to keep passengers safe. However, more airlines started opening those seats back up after evidence started rolling in that air travel was safer than previously thought. 

Studies from the Department of Defense and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health both indicated that wearing masks and having air-filtration systems in place were enough to drastically reduce the possibility of catching COVID-19 while flying. 

Earlier this week, Delta became the last major airline to announce that it would soon be unblocking the middle seats on all of its flights. Alaska Airlines said it would block the middle seat in Premium Economy through May 31. 

United Airlines never introduced a policy of keeping the middle seat empty, saying there was no health reason to do so. It characterized middle seat blocking as a “publicity stunt.”

Although airlines are opening up middle seats again, they’re continuing to implement precautions like enhanced cleaning procedures and requirements like mask-wearing in order to keep flyers safe during the pandemic. 

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