• Sebastian Leck

FACT CHECK: Does leaving the middle seat empty on a plane prevent the spread of COVID-19?

UNCLEAR. Leaving a middle seat empty doesn’t meet physical distancing requirements and it’s not clear whether it provides enough distance between passengers to affect the spread of COVID-19. While air filtration and other measures reduce the risk of getting COVID-19, there’s still uncertainty about whether it is safe to travel by air.

WestJet and Air Canada ended their seat distancing policies on July 1, which means that the middle seats on their airplanes will no longer be left empty. British Columbia’s health minister and other government officials have criticized the policy for potentially endangering customers, and NDP Member of Parliament Niki Ashton said it “speaks to the profit-driven agenda of the airlines.”

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, however, Harvard policy researcher Ashley Nunes argued that distanced seating made no difference at all. “There is no way to properly physically distance on an airplane—at least, not without effectively emptying out the cabin,” Nunes wrote, claiming that requiring empty middle seats was more of an exercise in public relations than an effective health measure.

It’s almost impossible to practise physical distancing on a plane

The Canadian government recommends keeping a distance of two metres to help avoid becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. Modern planes, however, have a seat width of around forty-five centimetres, according to reports from the BBC and Quartz. The distance between rows in economy seating on Air Canada and WestJet planes is around seventy-five to eighty centimetres.

To meet physical distancing requirements, passengers would need at least four seats between them on their left and right side and two empty rows in front of and behind them. Based on the calculations by John Walton at the BBC, such an arrangement would mean airlines fill only 15 percent of their seats.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association that sets technical guidelines for airlines, claims that empty seats are not an effective health precaution. The guide suggests that there are better ways to protect passengers, like high-quality air filtration, sanitization of the cabin, and setting limits to passengers moving through the aisles.

The problem, though, is that there is little data that looks at COVID-19 transmission on planes—especially because few people have been traveling since lockdowns began. In a press release, the IATA cited data from only two flights, as well as an informal survey of airlines and a review of contact tracing that found no cases of transmission among 1,100 passengers.

Some public health experts are skeptical that putting passengers close together is a good idea. Tim Sly, an epidemiologist at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health, told the Canadian Press that masks alone can’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 if passengers sit elbow-to-elbow. He said the only way to be totally safe would be “almost a hazmat kind of set-up...connected directly to the air supply above.”

Airlines are taking other safety measures that could be effective

In other indoor spaces, COVID-19 may be able to spread via the air, especially if there is poor ventilation. That’s unlikely on a plane because the air is renewed and passed through a filter every few minutes. Modern airlines like Air Canada and WestJet use high-efficiency HEPA air filtration, which would theoretically remove any airborne viruses (see the WHO’s advice here).

Air Canada and WestJet are also mandating that passengers and employees wear masks, that airline staff sanitize surfaces like armrests and overhead bins, and that passengers have their temperature taken and answer a list of health questions prior to boarding.

It’s hard to say if it will be enough. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital, told the Globe and Mail that there have been few cases of COVID-19 spreading on flights and the risk is “probably lower than what people think it is.” A paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that, in one case, a passenger with COVID-19 symptoms was on a fifteen-hour flight from Guangzhou, China, to Toronto, but didn’t spread the virus to any of the other 350 passengers onboard.

Overall, empty middle seats are not enough to meet physical distancing recommendations but other features—like air filtration—provide some protection for passengers. At the very least, travelers should take the same precautions recommended for other methods of transit: wear masks, keep your distance whenever possible in waiting areas and line ups, wash your hands, and avoid touching your face.

Photo via Pexels.