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Experts say masks and physical distancing are still important on airplanes, even if middle seats are left vacant. EMS FORSTER PRODUCTIONS/Getty Images
  • A study shows that leaving the middle seat open on airplanes can reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus by 23 to 57 percent.
  • The study did not assess how mask-wearing could further limit the spread.
  • Experts interviewed by Healthily say the research shows the value of physical distancing to limit COVID-19 cases.

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New research shows that airlines can take one simple step to significantly reduce the risk of passengers being exposed to the coronavirus on flights.

According to a study published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving the middle seat unoccupied on flights reduces the risk of exposure to the coronavirus by 23 to 57 percent, compared to a flight with full occupancy.

Although the study does come with a few caveats, it provides valuable data for airlines and travelers, according to two experts Healthline interviewed.

The data is more proof of what we’ve all been hearing since the pandemic started: Physical distancing works.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that it all comes down to how COVID-19 is transmitted — but he did take note of a limitation in the study.

“The study did not assess risk of transmission in relation to seat occupancy. It also conducted the study in mannequins without masks, not representative of current mask requirements while flying,” he noted out.

“That said, the study findings are still relevant, since we know that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by droplets at close range – less than 6 feet – but also by aerosols, via airborne transmission, at longer distances for longer durations in closed spaces without adequate ventilation,” Glatter added.

While the study didn’t assess how wearing a mask might change things, Glatter told Healthline the best-practice advice for passengers is still to wear a mask while traveling.

“While passengers who are fully vaccinated are at low risk for infection as well as transmission, it’s still in everyone’s interest to wear a mask,” he advised. “Having an empty seat – by virtue of distance – adds an additional layer of security to this blanket of protection.”

Another unanswered question is how airborne particles might spread to areas in front of or behind occupied seats.

Dr. Robert Amler, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told Healthline that it’s difficult to say.

“If you have more distance, so there’s more fresh air between you, it helps,” he said. “How does that compare with somebody across the aisle from you or somebody a few rows away, or the space just behind you and the seat just in front of you? It’s difficult to say.

“Like many studies done in the real world, this had its limitations, and about all you can say is that keeping a middle seat empty is a good idea. It seems that it’d be more protective, but you can’t definitively say how much more,” he added.

Social distancing is a concept that was virtually unheard of before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s something that nearly everyone is familiar with.

The CDC study shows the value of adding even a small amount of distance between people in a confined area. The findings are likely relevant to other, more seasonal respiratory infections, too.

“Like a lot of people have speculated, I think we’re going to learn that some of the measures that have been taken against COVID have been effective in many ways, and the actual rate of influenza and other respiratory infections this past winter has been considerably lower,” said Amler. “I would love to see a more serious analysis of the data, but I’m certainly hearing from my friends in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, and pediatrics that they’ve seen decreases in these other respiratory-borne diseases.”

Amler also noted that, after more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions, many people are eager to make up for lost time by traveling – or have obligations that require travel. In these cases, he recommends following CDC guidelines regarding mask-wearing to limit exposure as much as possible.

“I’m positive that this pandemic will eventually come under control, and in the meantime we should try to do all the common-sense things that help us limit the spread of the virus,” he said. “It’s all about blocking exposure. If you have no exposure, you can’t get infected – and if you can’t get infected, there’s no risk. So that’s the key.”