The CDC reported after some research which suggests keeping the middle seat open on aircrafts can reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2; the reduction of spread ranged from 23% to 57%. Proximity is associated with increased risk of infection as well as time of exposure. The CDC and Kansas State University modeled this study using mock aircraft cabins, mannequins, and the bacteriophage MS2 virus, which emulates the mode of transmission in SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. After testing out different seating arrangements with the bacteriophage MS2 virus dispersed in the air, researchers came up with their numbers by sampling the air after exposure and comparing it to a similar study in 2017.
beginning with single passengers in the same row but two seats away from a COVID source which yielded a 23% reduction. When modelling this with a full aircraft, seated in this fashion, the reductions then ranged from 35% to 39%. 57% reduction occurred with vacant middle seats in a three-row section with a mix of COVID sources.
This study did not assess the effect of masks in regards to this situation, but did highlight the importance of distancing with COVID-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, physical distancing has been one of the main preventative steps one can take to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19, this study continues this narrative.
What we know as far as the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is that it is transmitted “by droplets at close range—less than 6 feet—but also by aerosols, via airborne transmission, at longer distances for longer durations in closed spaces without adequate ventilation,” (Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency physician at Lenox Hospital in New York City).
Because this study was done without taking masks into account, experts are still suggesting to wear a mask, even if vaccinated; the protection of distance is an added layer of protection against COVID-19, though experts still don’t really know how much. The high-quality air ventilation and filtration on aircrafts also provides another layer. However, it is important to take into account length of flights and the confined environment can only encourage so much physical distancing.
Another factor to take into consideration is the use of mannequins can only provide so much accurate information. Humans, unlike mannequins, will likely not remain motionless, meaning the possibility of spread increases based on an infected person’s movement around the cabin which could cause spread.
Laboratory Modeling of SARS-CoV-2 Exposure Reduction Through Physically Distanced Seating in Aircraft Cabins Using Bacteriophage Aerosol — November 2020 | MMWR (cdc.gov)
Empty Middle Seats on Planes Cut Coronavirus Risk in Study – The New York Times (nytimes.com)