Don’t be fooled by the headlines or lead paragraphs in other media outlets: the latest CDC study promoting vacant middle seats on airplanes fails on so many levels to grapple with the issue in a meaningful way.
Pointless CDC Study On Middle Seat Openings
Last July, we explained on Live and Let’s Fly in a very scientific way how leaving middle seats open provided statistically significant safety benefits. While such a conclusion may seem obvious, it was helpful to explore that some distance was better than no distance (thus discounting an all-or-nothing, six feet or pointless viewpoint).
But of course that is only part of the story. Yes, in an environment without masks you are nearly twice as likely to catch COVID-19 with the middle seat occupied than a middle seat open. But at what risk? 1 in 4,300 versus 1 in 7,700 is a big difference…but both are odds I am extremely comfortable taking. I’d imagine others would be too.
Note several problems with the CDC study:
- The study models virus exposure, not virus transmission (and uses norovirus, not coronavirus)
- The study fails to consider the impact of wearing masks
- Vaccinations and their effects on transmission are also not considered
So yeah…not a very helpful study to the fact patterns we are dealing with today.
Airlines For America, the lobbying arm of the U.S. airline industry, quickly issued the following response:
Since the onset of this crisis, U.S. airlines have relied on science, research and data to help guide decisions as they continuously reevaluate and update their processes and procedures. U.S. airlines have implemented multiple layers of measures aimed at preventing virus transmission, including strict face covering requirements, pre-flight health-acknowledgement forms, enhanced disinfection protocols and hospital-grade ventilation systems.
Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low. In recent research evaluating the entire inflight experience and accounting for the multiple layers of protection implemented by U.S. airlines, scientists with the Harvard Aviation Public Health Initiative concluded that the ventilation on airplanes is so good that – when combined with the layers of protection — the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 is reduced to a point so low that it “effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights.”
And of course you’d expect nothing less than airline lobbyists to use health data and studies they commissioned.
Nevertheless, I think it underscores this bottom line: flying on airplane, with a mask on, is an extremely low-risk event.
Of course open middle seats marginally reduce the risk of virus exposure. Every additional person onboard presents potential risk. But at what cost would we block middle seats? More taxpayer funded bailouts? More unemployment checks?
Eventually, travelers are going to have to choose if they want the vaccine and if they want to fly. If they do, there will be more risk involved that sheltering in place at home. But as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly clear that flying is a safe activity compared to many of the other public commerce we engage in.