Some ideas need to be nixed before they get too far, and blocked middle seats on planes is one of them. Social distancing is invaluable, but so are preventative measures, and on airlines they may be the only legitimate way of bringing relative safety back to air travel, without sending it into a tailspin.

With passenger numbers unlikely to fully recover until 2023, putting laws in place might be a bit overkill anyway. Empty seats will be out there for a long time.

The Problems With Blocked Middle Seats

Forget airline finance, and the fact that virtually every airline would be bankrupt without a way out if blocked middle seats became a rule. Forget that, for now. First, let’s focus on the actual concept of social distancing, and the desired distances.

The concept of social distancing, as defined by the CDC, means six feet, or circa 2 meter distance between you and another person. Blocking a middle seat does not buy you six feet. It buys you circa 20 inches, including the armrests. Most economy seats are 17-18 inches wide, which helps you with less than 1/3 of the desired distancing distance.

And let’s not forget everyone else directly behind you. History would say that’s actually what matters most in stopping spread, or how virus spreads.

Most airline seats offer 31” of seat pitch, aka the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on a seat in front or behind it in. Think: screen behind you to your screen. Even if you’re farther away from your row mates, the person in the row behind you is less than three feet and way less than one meter – aka half the ideal distance – from sneezing on you.

Think about the direction of most sneezes. More front to back, than side to side, right?

At this point, do we even need to bother mentioning how many times you’ve already likely broken social distancing rules before you get on the plane, including check in queues, security checkpoints, passport control, duty free, boarding gates and of course boarding itself? Let’s move on.

Studies from previous pandemics and health crises, such as SARS, have shown that blocked middle seats accomplish virtually nothing, and making them a law, or mandatory requirement for airlines stifles competition and blocks airlines from offering low fares. Better solutions can be found, and should be.

If it were effective, I’d be all for it, but hardly any scientific research suggests it has any effect at all. No one is saying you should travel today, but rather this is an examination of how travel could return.

Most spread in previous airplane based respiratory outbreaks involved being seated in front of a virus carrier, or infected person, not next to them. Again, think about where your breathing goes. That makes some sense, right?  During SARS, there were famous flights where people were infected many rows (7) away, yet other flights where no one was infected by a carrier at all.

It was largely about being in front of the person who was sick. Perhaps the last row on the plane will be more coveted than ever? By saying no to blocking middle seats, this is not a suggestion that any attempts to distance passengers on planes aren’t effective. They are, but creating rudimentary rules like middle seats, versus a rule to find distance in other ways is just dumb.

Passengers could elect to sit in staggered setups so that fewer people have someone directly behind them, and airlines could be encouraged, even as a sales tool for how they hope to spread passengers out as much as possible. Realistically, most planes will not be flying full, so maybe block every other row where possible?

The ideas are endless, but the middle seat is not “the one”.

What matters are: HEPA filters on aircraft, which eliminate dangerous pathogens – aka virus stuff – by regularly cycling air through these special filters, every 3 to 4 minutes, the cleaning of all surfaces on the plane before and after flights, and of course wearing masks. And yes, just like before, the fewer things you touch the better and wash your hands with wipes regularly.

US Airlines are now requiring passengers to wear masks, after Congressman Steve Cohen, a member of the House Transportation and Aviation Committee, pushed for greater safety aboard planes. This style of move allows airlines to remain competitive, while taking the most effective steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The move fits with growing hindsight research, which shows that hygiene and protective layers made a tremendous difference in slowing down the spread, long before mandatory lockdowns were put into place. For now, focus on your airline’s record of cleanliness, how new air systems or planes are, and focus on direct flights which eliminate as much time in the air as possible.

Hindsight is always clearer than a real time health crisis moving like a jet plane, but blocking middle seats would be dangerous, costly and useless on jet planes. For now, stay home and wait until travel reopens safely, and when it does be sure to cover up.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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13 Comments

  1. The best solution during the pandemic is do not fly! As long as there is no vaccine, there is no safer solution. It does not matter if you have 2 or 3 or etc metres around you, you are breathing the same air during the whole flight. The best is to stay away from flying as long as there is no secure solution for pax and crew.

    1. So….never. Let me know why there isn’t a vaccine for the common cold or the flu? Because there isn’t one. There won’t be an effective vaccine for something that is more powerful aka. the coronavirus. Anyone lining up for this coronavirus vaccine may as well be putting windshield wiper fluid into their body.

      1. There is a seasonal flu vaccine. It changes every year because the flu virus is changing constantly – different strains. WHO has a lot of historical data on influenza and the strains are predicted each season (separately for northern and Southern Hemispheres). The flu shot is then developed and typically covers for 3-4 strains that season. In the scientific press I’ve read that COVID is genetically very stable (Like, for example, measles), therefore it is unlikely to need to mutate. This is good news for a vaccine. There will be a vaccine but producing any new medication is not fast and must undergo thorough testing. I don’t think we will see a Prophylactic vaccine until next year. However, we may see some effective treatments soon that can treat the worse cases.
        And I agree fully with the article. Getting rid of middle seats will do nothing!

    2. Feel free to stay locked inside your house of the rest of eternity. Good grief people, turn off corporate media. This is an election year – they are using fear to the extreme. Follow the data.

  2. Blocking the middle seat puts less people within 6 ft. of an infected person, so it is less dangerous, not more. Not saying that your other points aren’t valid, but saying crowding more people closer together is OK is patently false.

  3. Finally! BA will be forced to start cleaning their cabins, or will they find a way to dodge even thus, having not acted effectively on customer and staff feedback re: cabin cleanliness for at least 5years.
    Another reason I’ll continue to fly anyone but BA whenever there’s a choice when we return to the sky’s as I want; comfort, catering, honesty, quality, reliability and value when spending thousands of my or my employer money on a “premium” fare. Based in 17years of travel experiences, BA can no longer be relied on to deliver any of the above.

  4. So how is touching another person a good thing?
    Having someone occcupy the middle seat in an obese country like American means you cannot help but physically make contact with someone else

  5. What people don’t seem to understand, at least those pushing for blocking middle seats long term or even more extreme distancing on planes, is the economic impact on tickets.

    Sure you can say health is top priority and if that is your view great so either don’t fly or fly private. However for people that either have to fly or the many (myself included) that have no problem getting on a plane again (hopefully after the mask requirement goes away) the impact on ticket prices could be extreme. If you block middle seats expect 25-30% higher fares and if you try to give everyone 6 ft of space expect fares that are 400-600% higher than now (like full fare business class fares). It is simple economics in that profitably flying a plane cost a certain amount and that will be the cost of tickets.

    On a related note I don’t think very many people understand the overall inflationary impact of COVID (at least in the near term). Restaurants w lower capacity, more cleaning and higher supply chain costs will result in 25% (or more) increase in cost of restaurant meals. Increases will be everywhere across all businesses due to restrictions put in place and this will run through the entire supply chain.

    Get used to significantly higher costs with likely prolonged unemployment and lower wage growth. Huge impact on lifestyle for billions

  6. Gilbert – you are right about most things in this article except one: airlines are not blocking seats to prevent passengers from getting COVID. They are blocking seats for two reasons:

    Marketing: Even with load factors down, airlines are still competing for passengers. Blocking the middle seat is one of many “features” that airlines are using to 1) convince passengers that it’s safe to fly and 2) make passengers think that their airline is “safer” than others.

    Efficiency: Passengers of course, want to sit next to an empty seat, and will ask for a seat change if they find that they are sitting next to another passenger. Proactively blocking middle seats – especially since load factors now are often way below 66% – saves check-in and gate agents, and FAs a ton of time compared to reseating passengers on the fly during the check in or boarding process.

    In other words, airlines are blocking middle seats for their benefit, not the passenger’s.

    The next obvious question is, “isn’t an airline liable if they seat me close to a passenger with COVID, then I get COVID and die?” The answer here is no. Just replace “COVID” in that question with “the flu” or “SARS”, “Ebola”, etc. and you can get an idea why. Passengers are accepting a risk when they fly, and an airline won’t be found grossly negligent if they don’t socially distance passengers. This may be tested in the courts, but I am 100% certain that airlines will prevail.

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