• A new CDC modeling study estimated that keeping middle seats empty on planes may reduce ‘viable virus’ spread by 23-57%.
  • In the study, mannequins didn’t wear any masks.
  • It’s a reminder that masks and distance are best — especially if plane passengers remove masks or wear masks with gaps in them.  
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This summer, every major airline across the US will have middle seats open for purchase on planes.

But a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study suggests that could be a great way to invite COVID-19 to spread on board flights — especially at the times when passengers might lower their masks to eat or drink. 

The new CDC report, out Wednesday, estimates how far COVID-19 aerosols (airborne viral particles that can linger in the air) can spread on a plane. To do this, researchers modeled how another, similar virus spread between mannequins in a lab when they weren’t wearing any masks.

The study found that leaving middle seats empty, to space passengers and their germs out, could really help reduce viral exposure in flight when people take off their masks or if their masks have gaps in them.

For instance, a passenger sitting two seats away from an infectious person would have their risk of exposure to the virus reduced by 23%, when compared to their risk sitting right next to an infectious person with their mask off. That risk reduction could soar further, up to 57%, the study found, in a three row section with vacant middle seats. 

CDC MMWR

While masks are now required apparel on major airlines, and very few cases of COVID-19 spreading aboard planes have been documented during the pandemic, it’s worth noting that masks aren’t 100% perfect at trapping tiny viral aerosols in flight.

A recent case study from New Zealand suggested even masked airline passengers who have COVID-19 can emit infectious aerosols on board, which are capable of infecting other passengers around them.

The new CDC study, though an imperfect approximation of how people behave on planes during the pandemic, is a good reminder that layers of protection: masks, distance, and frequent handwashing are much better at preventing the spread of the virus than a single protocol. 

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