Keeping a center seat empty on airplanes halves the risk of passengers becoming infected with the coronavirus, a study suggests.
Professor Arnold Barnett, a statistician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated the risk of transmission on an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 – two of the most widely used aircraft.
He found the risk of catching the virus for a passenger in a window seat of a packed plane, one in 7,000.
But the odds drop to just one in 14,000 under the middle seat empty policy, which has already been adopted by some airlines in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Professor Barnett – whose work has not been reviewed by independent experts – claimed that his findings demonstrate a “measurable reduction” in transmission risk.
But he wrote, “The question is whether giving up a third of the seats is too high a price to pay for the extra precaution.”
Professor Barnett added that if there was a thin layer of Plexiglas between the seats, the chances of the virus spreading “would essentially drop to zero”.
The risk of contracting the virus for a passenger in a window seat in a packed airplane was one in 7,000. But the odds drop to just one in 14,000 under the middle seat empty policy, which has already been adopted by some airlines in response to the Covid-19 pandemic
Professor Barnett, a renowned expert in aviation safety and risk, admitted that there were several shortcomings in his models.
He wrote in the study that it was based on the ‘strong’ assumption that travelers only get infected when someone is in the same row.
This is “plausible,” he argued, because the air in the cabin is constantly being refreshed and isn’t an enclosed interior like a pub.
Professor Barnett also revealed that the estimate did not take into account the risk of passengers becoming infected when boarding or leaving the plane.
Passengers in larger groups are known to gather in the port to wait to board and get in touch with others as they rush to disembark after landing.
And the model – not published in a medical journal – did not take into account how travelers can walk past infectious passengers on their way to the toilet.
DO SOME AIRLINES KEEP THE MIDDLE SEAT?
WHICH AIRPORTS CAN A MIDDLE SEAT ADOPT POLICY?
… AND WHICH AIRLINES NOT?
It also ignored the potential for the virus to remain on surfaces in toilets, which can then be picked up by fellow travelers.
The study, published on the pre-printed website medRxiv, also assumed that no passengers wore masks – which have been proven to reduce the risk of transmission by 80 percent.
And the model – which said the risks are lower on flights that aren’t full – didn’t take flight time into account.
For example, the study was based on a two-hour domestic flight through the United States, but the risk could be higher if people were locked up for longer.
Covid-19 is still a mysterious disease, with scientists baffled by its mechanisms since it was first noticed six months ago.
Under the risk of one in 14,000, this means that about ten people become infected for every 140,000 air travelers.
But many cases may go unnoticed because some patients show no symptoms – up to 40 percent of infected people are believed to be asymptomatic.
Professor Barnett wrote, “Calculations like the ones here are very approximate and projections about them are often far from measure.”
Airlines have been plagued by the Covid-19 pandemic, with people all over the world being cut off from flights to every corner of the globe.
British quarantine regulations – before the airlifts were announced – caused warnings that air travel would be effectively killed.
British Airways has already confirmed that 12,000 jobs will be cut despite the government extending its leave scheme until the end of October.
As the industry picks up again, several airlines, including budget airline Ryanair, have revealed they will occupy all available seats on their flights.
The company’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, described keeping the middle seat “ idiot ” empty and said it wouldn’t make money from that policy.
But easyJet, the other low-cost airline, has taken the opposite path and announced that the middle seats would remain empty to keep passengers at a social distance.
It comes after a report last month warned that the Covid-19 outbreaks were worse in areas with large airports and large numbers of travelers traveling through them.
The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) said the spread of the disease, which killed more than 50,000 people in Britain, was “strongly correlated” with air travel.