Open heart seats may scale back Covid publicity to maskless passengers

View of the cabin of a Delta flight between Minneapolis and Baltimore on April 25, 2020.

Sebastien Duval | AFP | Getty Images

Passenger exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19 could be reduced by more than half if the center seats on airplanes were left open, according to a new study published Wednesday.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kansas State University used laboratory models to find that passenger exposure to SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, could be reduced by between 23% in large and narrow-body aircraft and 57% when airlines leave middle seats open – Even if they don’t wear masks.

The study comes after airlines have spent much of the last year promoting increased on-board cleaning procedures and filtration to reassure travelers worried about flying during the pandemic. The demand for travel has recovered somewhat since then, as more people are vaccinated against Covid-19.

U.S. airlines, including JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, limited the capacity on board their aircraft at the start of the pandemic, but have since abandoned the policy, citing hospital-grade filtration and other safety measures as limiting exposure. Delta Air Lines plans to end the lockdown of the center seats next month, the last U.S. carrier to make the change. However, capacity caps were halted over the Easter weekend as staff shortages resulted in dozens of flight cancellations.

The researchers’ study did not look at wearing masks on flights, which became an airline and federal government policy during the pandemic.

However, they cited a New Zealand case study which stated that “some of the virus aerosol is given off by an infectious masked passenger, so distancing might still be useful.”

They used a surrogate virus to stand up for SARS-CoV-2 in the air.

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