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).
> Read More: A Scientific Basis For Blocking Middle Seats On Airplanes
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.
Good read. Let’s just be realistic – if there was actual wide spread transmission of COVID on airplanes they would have been shut down a long time ago.
Guess what – there isn’t!
For those who don’t want to fly, stay home and don’t complain about it! I’ve been enjoying the friendly/safe skies without you!
Very misleading. I wish news would prioritize analysis like this instead of clickbait
What’s going on in the cover photo? I’m sure it’s a stock photo but were they too lazy to even move the lighting stands out of frame? #offtopic
Wow, I didn’t even notice that. That’s funny!
The US government has moved into the farce stage of the pandemic now.
Perhaps I read the paper very differently from you, but I did not think the conclusions listed in the paper are particularly misleading. Also I did not think the findings in the paper is particularly useless. My take on the study is this: Distancing reduces person-to-person exposure of viruses, and even the small difference in distancing by blocking middle seats was enough to reduce the levels of exposure IN THIS model system.
Obviously, this is not the study to definitively prove/disprove the benefits of middle-seat blocking. To do that perfect study, we should fill people, all tested negative and in isolation for 14 days before the flight, into a bunch of airplanes (100 of the planes with middle seats blocked, and another 100 with middle seats not blocked) mixed in with strategically placed people known to be infected with the virus, and then quarantine them all after the flight (to make sure they don’t pick up the virus elsewhere) to see the incidence of the disease. That is an impossible experiment to do, for various logistical/ethical reasons. So we resort to experimental models to gain more understanding about the different aspects of viral exposure/transmission and how various mitigation could affect that process. That’s how science works. Science is incremental. And it requires the “consumer” of science to have a very good grasp of the scientific context of the study to know if the study is useful or not.
The conclusions of the paper are not misleading, but also not very helpful – we reported a year ago (and it is common sense) that more distance means marginally more safety. But the way the media has reported on this story has not been helpful and the odd conclusions drawn from it (∴ airlines should block middle seats) is totally misleading.
To me its unclear if airplanes increased Covid cases but travel does. High travel periods have been associated with spikes in cases.
The same CDC that stops a vaccine over side effects that occur less often than winning 50K or more on the powerball
Odds of a JNJ vaccine causing a blood clot: > 1 million to 1
Odds of winning 50K or more on powerball: 913000 to 1
Can we get COMPETENT leadership at the CDC?
Then I’m sure you would also admit that the title of your post is clearly misleading. As you said, the reporting of the study, in your opinion, is misleading, not the study itself.
Furthermore, I think I don’t think it is neither helpful or entirely accurate to say that distancing of passengers on a plane affords only a small margin of additional protection from the virus. I think that is really a function of the incidence of the disease (both symptomatic and asymptomatic) among the passengers, a number that we really don’t know yet. I think we are still collecting more information about this disease, and I think it is shortsighted to think that what we “thought” a year ago is forever true, and for that matter what we know now will be also true forever. But as I said earlier, the way science works is that we collect more and more information and then continually analyze in the context of what we consider, at that time, as widely accepted paradigm.
With respect, I don’t find the title misleading at all, nor do I dispute your point about science works.
But there are other studies too (Harvard study, DOD study) that more accurately speak to the situation on everyone’s mind: the impact of distancing on airplanes when COVID-19 exposure and masks are at play.
@Derek, this is how it is supposed to work. In the US, we have more vaccinations than people willing to take the vaccination so it isn’t necessary to use the Janssen vaccine. They are pausing it’s use to study the extremely rare occurrence because that vaccine (and similarly made vaccines) is most definitely going to be needed again and they will want to have protocols in place to treat the rare clotting problems or an alternative for the population that is affected (currently females of childbearing age). Anyone in the US who has allergies that would require them to take the Janssen vaccine over the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine can still get a compassionate use authorization for it. Everyone saying the antivaxxers are going to jump on this forgets the antivaxxers were going to jump on the 6 women with clotting disorders anyway.
The study is NOT misleading — it very clearly states its parameters and limitations — you cited them yourself. If anything, people are misinterpreting it. Every legitimately published article I’ve seen spells it all out — not sure why bloggers think this is a big deal (clickbait/self-aggrandizement).
When you are making policy decisions based upno events that occur less often than winning the powerball, it starts to sound like Onion material
I happen to know several who will ONLY take the JNJ so they only have 1 shot. Yes, I know the data shows that 1 shot of Pfizer and Moderna works just as well as 1 shot of JNJ, but good luck getting Fauci to change his closed mind
And you’ve pointed out the whole problem with this entire Covid issue and it being used as a political football: You can take your pick of any “study” you want and cherry-pick any of the plethora of variables and percentages and results to “prove” whichever narrative your side wants to “prove.” Take the politics out of this and we’d all be back to what we all learned as kids and moving on with life: wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and if you’re sick, probably don’t go to work or school and spread whatever you’ve got. This shouldn’t be difficult. But unfortunately today EVERYTHING is filtered through our personal politics.
@Derek, math isn’t your thing is it? You are 292 times more likely to have a clotting reaction (6/6,000,000 vs. 1 /292,201,338). Neither is an likely or even expected outcome, but both do actually happen fairly regularly and need to be accounted for. I mean, Powerball still has a sinking fund to pay the prizes despite the fact it is less likely than a someone being crushed by a vending machine (1/4,000,000). If your friends are only willing to take Janssen, tell them to see if they can get an CUA or wait a couple of weeks and if they aren’t women 18-49, they will probably be able to get one. Currently, the pause is only in effect for one week.
If the CDC cared about us passengers, they would order the airlines to remove all the seats and replace them with suites.
I don’t mind being in middle suite (1-1-1 configuration) but don’t want a middle seat.