The Middle Seat Muddle

This week the CDC released information about whether airlines should follow policies that block off the middle seat on their planes. The CDC announced that laboratory modeling showed that blocking off the middle passenger seat, in either single-aisle or double-aisle planes, reduced airborne exposure to infectious diseases from fellow passengers by 23 percent to 57 percent. Those in the airline industry promptly noted that “the CDC admits that the current studies quantifying the benefit of specific social distancing strategies in the cabin, such as keeping the middle seats vacant, are limited.”

I don’t know which airlines–if any–are still blocking off the middle seats of flights. We flew American to and from Arizona on our recent visit, and on our flights every seat, including the middle seat, was filed. The airlines not only take the position that the science cited by the CDC is “limited,” but also point out that the airline industry took a huge hit in the early days of COVID, when most people avoided travel, and they need to sell those middle seats to recover economically and become profitable again.

It’s a class example of the tug-of-war between public health and profitability. I’m convinced that, if the CDC had its druthers, they’d rather every American stayed in their homes and avoided any risks whatsoever. And when it comes to air travel, they’d rather people are more spaced out (cramped passengers wouldn’t mind that, either), everyone wears masks, no food is served, and aircraft are designed so that all potential disease transmission vectors are avoided. Of course, if the airlines followed all of the CDC’s guidance, the cost of air travel would inevitably increase, some airlines would go out of business, and people wouldn’t be happy about it.

I’m guessing the airlines will come out on top in the middle-seat muddle and will continue to fill those middle seats, unless the FAA or Congress actually mandates that middle seats be left vacant. But you can bet that the airlines won’t object to the public health requirements that don’t affect their bottom line–like requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, regardless of their vaccination status or COVID case data. I think air travelers are going to be masked for the foreseeable future–and maybe permanently.