“A case study of COVID-19 transmission on a flight with mandated mask-wearing … suggests that some virus aerosol is emitted from an infectious masked passenger, such that distancing could still be useful,” the CDC release said.
Most airlines returned to packing flights last year in an attempt to make up for staggering financial losses. Delta is the last major U.S. airline still blocking middle seats, and it will stop doing so on May 1.
But could the new findings prompt airlines to create more space between passengers on planes or reverse course?
Industry experts say probably not.
“This is a giant bombshell from the CDC,” said Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “I think the airlines are going to look at it and say, ‘That’s nice. We’re not going back to blocking middle seats.’ ”
Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, said the main reason airlines were able to block seats for so long was because it didn’t cost them anything when flights were only 30 percent full because of low demand. With airlines flying at more than 75 percent capacity on average, Keyes said blocking middle seats would cost companies millions of dollars in lost ticket sales.
“With vaccinations accelerating and travel interest rebounding sharply, it’s more likely that President Biden will dunk a basketball on live TV than airlines will reimpose middle-seat blocking,” Keyes said in an email.
Keyes said travelers might not realize that most airlines allow customers to purchase the seat next to them and keep it open. With airfare still remarkably cheap right now, Keyes said that option may be more viable than in the past.
Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency, said an exception could be Delta.
“For now, it may not cost them much to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll keep that middle seat blocked,’ ” he said.
Delta cited consumer behavior and growing vaccination rates in its decision to end its seat-blocking policy, along with the consensus that risk of transmission onboard is minimal if all passengers remain masked.
“Physical distancing of aircraft passengers, including through policies such as middle seat vacancy, could provide additional reductions in SARS-COV-2 exposure risk,” Jade Fulce, CDC public affairs specialist, said in an email. “Some airline carriers have been operating with a vacant seat policy, and this study supports the effectiveness of that intervention, in the context of other measures that are in place.”
Instead of reinstating middle-seat bans, Del Monte thinks airlines may maintain public confidence in flying by requiring passengers to prove their immunity using “vaccine passports.”
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