Spirit flies a fleet of A319s, A320s, and A321s with a predominantly economy class configuration, yet like AirTran has a quasi-Business Class set of seats called "Big Comfy Seats" (not pictured) available at extra cost. All seats are appointed in leather, not so much for luxury, but for durability. (Credits: Author)

MIAMI – The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has disclosed a new study that estimates that blocking middle seats on airplanes could decrease the risk of passengers getting coronavirus by nearly half.

Some airlines started flight resumption plans implementing this practice by limiting their seat capacity; however, part of them stepped back and just starting to book flights in full capacity again.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) already expressed their concerns about middle seat policies.
Delta’s Economy Comfort seats. (Credits: Author)

Calculated Risk

The MIT paper said that while the chances of catching the virus from a nearby passenger on a full flight are about 1 in 4,300, there is the likehood that those numbers can decrease to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seats are left empty.

The author of the study, Arnold Barnett, said that his analysis is an approximation of the implications of flight booking. As carriers are “setting their own policies,” the study is aimed so the public can understand the risk of their choices.

An interesting revealed fact is that the odds of dying from a COVID-19 contagion on a flight are far feasible than dying in a plane crash, which probability is about 1 in 34 million.

Even seat in the middle. Photo: Author.

First policies on middle seat capacity

With the promise of a safe return to the skies, major US companies have established new policies on seat capacity during purchases.

The initial plan was also part of a strategy to gain passengers’ trust again, implementing new guidelines due to the fear of contracting the virus.

First approaches on social distancing were implemented by Delta Air Lines (DL) in 50%, 60%, and 75% capacities, American Airlnes (AA) in 50% of capacity, and United Airlines (UA) just blocking middle seat purchases according to travel class.

Following suit, jetBlue (B6), Southwest Airlines (WN), Alaska Airlines (AS) and Frontier Airlines (F9) informed at the beginning of June that they would resume some flights without selling all their seat capacities.

New policies on booking seats change according to selected travel class.
(Delta ONE seats). Photo: Delta Air Lines.

A New Definition of Recovery

According to a report by the Washington Post, In July, AA, UA, and B6 announced that they would change their policies by booking middle seats again. In contrast, DL and WN will apply the blocking on capacity until September.

While flight decisions still rely on passengers, it is no secret that these policies were easy to implement during lighter resumptions.

The weight of middle seats capacity risks seems to be divided around a recovery in airlines revenue and a safe recovery of the industry during these unprecedented times.