Flying with middle seats filled during the COVID-19 pandemic poses a greater threat to passengers than plane crashes, according to new statistical research from an MIT professor.
Using publicly available statistics on social distance and COVID-19 transfer, Arnold Barnett, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, calculated that the probability of transferring COVID-19 on a commercial flight with every middle seat booked double is what it would be without the middle seats occupied.
According to Barnett’s statistical modeling, a person is faced with a 4,300 chance of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 while flying an airplane with each middle seat filled.
A new statistical model from MIT shows that if airlines sell every center seat on commercial flights, the COVID-19 transmission odds will increase from one in 7700 to one in 4300
That chance drops by nearly half, to just one in 7,700, when you fly on an airplane where no middle seat tickets have been booked, according to a report on Barnett’s research in ZDnet.
“The airlines set their own policies, but the airlines and the public need to be aware of the risk implications of their choices,” Barnett said. ZDNet.
According to Barnett’s model, three months of commercial flights with all center seats would mean 20 additional COVID-19 deaths or 80 deaths per year.
At an estimated death rate of 1%, that would mean that one person dies for every 430,000 passengers who traveled on commercial flights with the middle seats occupied.
By comparison, that is 79 times greater than the chance of dying in a commercial airplane crash, which is only one in 34 million.
Barnett’s statistical model has not been peer-reviewed and is based on rough calculations rather than direct observation in a controlled experimental setting.
With every middle seat sold, the chance of dying from COVID-19 incurred during air travel is 79 times higher than the chance of dying from a plane crash
According to Barnett, some people mistakenly consider social distance as one or a proposal that works 100% of the time when properly followed, and 0% of the time with some deviation.
The reality is that it is a set of best practices that simply increase or decrease the chance of transfer, and even in areas where best practices cannot be fully observed, small changes can still have a positive impact.
“The basic formula says that for every additional meter, the risk decreases 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 U.S., there were no consistent federal seat-distance guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning different airlines have different policies.
Airlines all developed different seating policies during COVID-19. United has continued to book center seats, while Delta has stopped selling center seat tickets until at least September 30. American Airlines opens half of the center seats on its flights for sale
United has maintained a policy of selling center seats on all of its flights, citing that the distance between an aisle and a window seat will be within the recommended six feet for safe social distance.
Delta Airlines has maintained a policy of not selling center seats on any of its flights through September 30.
American Airlines has decided to split the difference by selling half of the middle seats on all of its flights
A United spokesperson responded to Barnett’s investigation, saying that the airline has developed a “ multi-layer approach ” to keep its planes safe and clean, including air filtration, medical-grade disinfectant between flights, and mandatory face masks for passengers and flight attendants.
“I imagine the different things they do are a sincere effort to make things safer, but that doesn’t contradict the fact that it would be even safer if you kept a center seat open,” said Barnett.