- Airlines are rejecting the CDC’s study suggesting blocking middle seats, citing newer findings.
- Blocking middle seats, however, serve as a peace of mind measure for those returning to flying.
- Not all airlines are following some of the recommendations of the studies they tout.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Airlines seemed to flat out reject a new suggestion from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday that middle seats should be blocked in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The airlines cited more recent studies that prove the efficacy of mask-wearing and air filters on aircraft.
“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,” a spokesperson for the trade organization Airlines for America, which represents the likes of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, told Insider.
“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,” the organization said.
Delta is currently the last airline to still block middle seats but will stop doing so on May 1, the longest run of any US airline to block seats. The CDC’s study hasn’t deterred the airline either, which held firm on the policy shift when asked by CNBC on Thursday.
“Our experts tell us that with vaccination rates where they’re at and demand being as strong as it is it’s absolutely safe to sit in that middle seat,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said.
Airlines and at least one aviation expert agree that the CDC study is flawed in multiple aspects including that it was performed in 2017 using maskless mannequins – while wearing masks on an airplane is now mandated by federal law – and wasn’t conducted on an actual airplane, unlike more recent studies.
But science aside, blocking middle seats served a valuable purpose during the pandemic: inspiring peace of mind among travelers returning to flying after months of being grounded.
My experience with blocked middle seats
I’m a life-long flyer and returning to the skies in June 2020 was not an easy decision. Like many, I’d feared catching the novel coronavirus and had a brief moment of panic when I boarded my first flight amid the pandemic.
I was lucky to be flying Delta, however, as I’m sure my panic would have been worsened if I was on a packed plane.
More Americans are returning to flying, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, and awaiting them come May are crowded flights now that every major US airline is filling aircraft to capacity. Plus, what traveler doesn’t appreciate having more room to spread out with an open middle seat?
I do realize that airlines need to be profitable in order for me to keep enjoying their services. Delta, after all, estimated that it lost up to $150 million in potential revenue from blocking seats in March.
But, not all of the country is vaccinated and even those that are still might not feel comfortable with being packed into a plane.
My hope is that airlines giving up on seat-block will double down on other efforts to drive home the fact that flying is safe. I’ve seen this on airlines like Delta and United but some have a way to come in their efforts.
The findings of studies promoting air travel as safe are predicated on airlines following their recommended precautions. But even the industry-funded study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health specifically gives recommendations that some airlines aren’t following or enforcing.
One recommendation, for example, states: “Reduce the density of passengers embarking/disembarking the jet bridge at any one time.” Southwest Airlines just reverted to boarding in groups of 30 and doesn’t install social distancing placards, as Insider found on recent Southwest flights in February, even though the study recommends as much.
The Harvard study also mentions, “When one passenger briefly removes a mask to eat or drink, other passengers in close proximity should keep their masks on,” a rule not mandated by most US airlines.
So while crowded flights are here once more and justified by science, airlines aren’t completely off the hook and will still need to do their utmost to keep flyers safe.