MIT paper says filling middle seat on planes doubles COVID-19 spread

MIT researcher warns that filling middle seats on airplanes could nearly double COVID-19 transmissions and cause an extra 80 deaths a year

  • A new statistical model shows COVID-19 infections rising on commercial flights
  • The MIT produced model shows nearly double the transmissions with middle seats filled, and more than 80 additional deaths from COVID-19 a year
  • Without federal guidelines, airline policy on middle seat sales is inconsistent

Flying with middle seats filled during the COVID-19 pandemic poses a larger threat to passengers than plane crashes, according to new statistical research from an MIT professor.

Using publicly available statistics on social distancing and COVID-19 transmission, Arnold Barnett, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, calculated that the odds of COVID-19 transmission on a commercial flight with every middle seat booked is nearly double what it would be without the middle seats occupied.

According to Barnett’s statistical modeling, a person faces a one in 4,300 chance of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 while flying on a plane with every middle seat filled.

A new statistical model from MIT shows that if airlines sell every middle seat on commercial flights, COVID-19 transmission odds will rise from one in 7,700 to one in 4,300

Those odds fall by nearly half, to just one in 7,700, when flying on a plane where no middle seat tickets are booked, according to a report on Barnett’s research in ZDnet.

‘The airlines are setting their own policies but the airlines and the public should know about the risk implications of their choices,’ Barnett told ZDNet.

According to Barnett’s model, three months of commercial flights with all the middle seats could mean 20 additional COVID-19 deaths, or 80 deaths in a year.

Using an estimated fatality rate of 1%, that would mean one person would die for every 430,000 passengers who traveled on commercial flights with the middle seats filled.

For comparison, that’s 79 times higher than the chances of dying in a commercial plane crash, which are just one in 34 million.

Barnett’s statistical model hasn’t been peer-reviewed and is based on rough calculations rather than direct observation in a controlled experimental setting.

With every middle seat sold, the odds of dying from COVID-19 contracted during air travel is 79 times higher than the chances of dying from a plane crash 

According to Barnett, some people erroneously think of social distancing as an either or proposition that works 100% of the time when followed properly, and 0% of the time with any deviation.

The reality is its a set of best practices that simply raise or lower the probability of transmission, and even in spaces where best practices can’t be completely observed, small changes can still have a positive impact.

“The basic formula says that for every additional meter, the risk goes down by a factor of two,” Barnett said.

‘So in that sense, two meters is only half as risky as one meter and three meters is only half as risky as two.’

In the US, there has been no consistent federal guidelines for seat spacing during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning different airlines have had different policies.

Airlines have all developed different seating policies during COVID-19. United has continued to book middle seats, while Delta has stopped selling middle seat tickets until at least September 30th. American Airlines opens half the middle seats on its flights for sale

United has maintained a policy of selling middle seats on all its flights, citing the fact that the distance between an aisle and window seat is will within the recommended six feet for safe social distancing.

Delta Airlines has maintained a policy of not selling middle seats on any of its flights through September 30th.

American Airlines has decided to split the difference selling half of the middle seats on all its flights

A United spokesperson responded to Barnett’s research by saying the airline has developed a ‘multi-layered approach’ to keeping its planes safe and clean, which includes air filtration, medical grade disinfectant used between flights, and mandatory face masks for passengers and flight attendants.

‘I imagine the various things they’re doing are a sincere attempt to make things safer, but that doesn’t contradict the point that it would be safer still if you kept a middle seat open,’ Barnett said.

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