A New CDC Report Indicates Blocking Middle Seats Reduces COVID-19 Transmission

Blocking middle seats reduces transmission risk up to 57%, but there's a catch

Airplane Interior
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Breaking news, everyone: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a report that claims blocking middle seats on planes reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission on board. But, um, duh?

We've known from the beginning that social distancing prevents transmission, so of course blocking middle seats would help decrease the risk of catching the virus during a flight. The fewer people on board, the more they can spread out, and there is less chance of transmission. That's why airlines blocked middle seats in the first place!

The new(ish) information in the report is the numbers. By analyzing data from a 2017 study, the CDC suggests that the risk of transmission is reduced 23 percent to 57 percent when middle seats are blocked, as compared to a full aircraft. Again, that's not really that surprising. We've been pretty aware of this concept since the beginning of the pandemic.

And here's the kicker—because the study was completed three years before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, it didn't account for mask usage. Current research suggests that wearing a mask is an extremely effective form of preventing virus transmission on aircraft.

Just look at the numbers. Throughout the entirety of 2020, most of which included mask requirements on planes, only 44 passengers are known to have potentially contracted COVID-19 out of some 1.2 billion people who flew. That's roughly one in 27 million. Of course, these stats don't take into consideration anyone who might've gone unreported. But still, the odds are incredibly slim that you'll contract COVID-19 on a plane if everyone masks up.

So sure, while it's great to know that blocking the middle seat reduces virus transmission when passengers are maskless, the report is moot. All airlines require passengers to wear masks on board anyway—in fact, if you're flying across state lines, wearing a mask is federally mandated.

So there's really no need to worry about the middle seat thing if you're planning on flying any time soon (ideally after you've been vaccinated, please!). Just mask up to keep everyone safe.

Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report." April 23, 2021.

  2. TRANSCOM. "TRANSCOM/AMC Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Test." August 2020.

  3. IATA. "Extremely Low Risk of Viral Transmission In-Flight." November 6, 2020.