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Empty Middle Seats on Planes Cut Coronavirus Risk in Study

Still, concern has swirled around the risk of airplane travel since the pandemic began. Planes are confined environments, and full flights make social distancing impossible. Some airlines began keeping middle seats vacant as a precaution.

The new paper, published Wednesday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, is based on data collected at Kansas State University in 2017. In that study, the researchers sprayed a harmless aerosolized virus through two mock airplane cabins. (One was a five-row section of an actual single-aisle plane; the other was a mock-up of a double-aisle wide-bodied plane.) The researchers then monitored how the virus dispersed through each cabin.

For the new study, researchers from Kansas State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used the 2017 data to model how passengers’ exposure to an airborne virus would change if every middle seat remained open in a 20-row single-aisle cabin.

Depending on the specific modeling approach and parameters they used, keeping the middle seats vacant reduced the total exposure passengers experienced in the simulation by 23 to 57 percent, compared with a fully occupied flight.

This reduction in risk stemmed from increasing the distance between an infectious passenger and others as well as from reducing the total number of people in the cabin, which lowers the odds that an infectious passenger would be aboard in the first place.

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