Should airlines keep the middle seat free to help with physical distancing? That’s a big question as the world looks towards its post-COVID-19 restart, and it’s a thorny one, reports aviation journalist John Walton.

Even as our world remains largely grounded, airlines and the government regulators that ensure they fly safely are looking to a future when passengers are permitted – and want – to fly again. To get to that point, aviation as a whole needs to put measures in place to ensure that people are kept as safe as possible, but also that people feel that they are being kept as safe as possible.

Would empty middle seats increase ticket prices? 

Within the aviation industry, the discussion is swirling around whether middle seats of three should be kept free, with a not insubstantial amount of “the-sky-is-falling” narrative about this being the end of cheap travel. This seems questionable: if a middle seat is kept free then, essentially, the revenue hit should be able to be covered by raising the prices of the other seats by half – but, crucially, only the price of the seats. 

Airfares are made up of a number of elements, including the notional part that includes transporting a passenger, airport charges, tourist taxes, government fees (including ones that are notionally environmental) and elements like fuel surcharges that are really a way for airlines to quickly adjust the pricing of a lot of their fares rather than being related to the actual use of fuel. 

Read more: When and how might travel rebound?

These don’t (or shouldn’t) all scale by half because many are charged per traveller, not per plane. And, of course, flying 120 people rather than 180 means an airline likely needs lower cabin crew staffing and less fuel.

So is it the end of cheap flights? This remains to be seen. Even if it does mean a 50% price rise, ask yourself if you’ll still fly if a €49 flight becomes a €73.50 flight. Now, what about if a €490 flight becomes a €735 flight? It gets complicated quickly.

Would empty middle seats help stop the spread of COVID-19 on flights? 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently announced that it supports passengers and staff wearing face masks – but doesn’t support mandating social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty. The discussion around middle seats places me in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether I agree with Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, at least partly. O’Leary called the idea of blocking middle seats “an idiotic idea that doesn't achieve anything” in an interview with the Financial Times, and in purely epidemiological terms he may well be right. 

Neither O’Leary nor I have, I believe, the relevant medical qualifications to know for certain, but there is a certain amount of base logic one can apply. If droplet transmission of the COVID-19 disease can be minimised at a distance of two metres (six feet), there is likely to be some effect to doubling the distance between your own mouth and the mouth of the person sitting next to you. 

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Is physical distance on flights possible? © bezikus / Shutterstock

But questions surely remain: how much effect? What about the person whose mouth is about a foot behind your head, about a third of the safe distance? What about the Washington choir that sat at two metres’ distance but still became an infection cluster? How do the carefully designed top-to-bottom aircraft cabin airflow and the HEPA filters installed on many large aircraft affect matters? How does the risk onboard compare with the risks of getting to and from airports and transiting terminals? How does the routine use of masks and gloves on aircraft affect things, and does this change if the masks are homemade or cloth versus surgical-style distributed by the airline? Do middle seats need to be left free if three family members are travelling together, especially if one is a small child?

On the one hand, we do need answers to these questions to determine whether the middle-seat-free model is helpful from the perspective of reducing the spread of the virus. If there are other actions that make a dramatically greater difference to the virus’ propagation, perhaps those should be prioritised: installing bathrooms with sinks large enough to wash more than one hand in, for example, or spending time and money between every flight fogging cabins with disinfectant, or perhaps an intensive rollout of UV disinfection.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument that the middle-seat-free concept is valid because it’s so visible: a type of public health theatre, where there is a need to do something – perhaps anything – to reassure the flying public that precautions are being taken. Done correctly, this sort of performative action can be helpful. Wearing a mask during a pandemic signals (with whatever degree of accuracy) to others that you are taking things seriously and that you’re taking precautions, in addition to reducing the likelihood of you passing the virus to others. 

A question that we as travellers – and the governments that regulate aviation on our behalf – should perhaps be asking, therefore, is not just “is this effective against the disease?” but “is it effective to reassure people that we’re taking it seriously?”.

Read more: 

8 changes we can expect when flying after COVID-19 

Vienna Airport will test you for COVID-19 for €190 so you can skip quarantine

How Amtrak trips will change after the COVID-19 pandemic

Argentina shuts down commercial flights with strictest travel ban in the Americas

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