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.

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