Does the Empty Middle Airplane Seat Really Make a Difference?

Photo by Bambi Corro

As the world eases its lockdown and COVID travel becomes our new normal, you might find that your favorite airline has changed the way air travel works.

Currently, all major U.S. airlines require passengers to wear masks. Most have also attempted to change the boarding process, to make sure there’s as much space between passengers as possible.

Perhaps the biggest change to air travel is one of the simplest. Some airlines are keeping the middle seat empty.

Why are some airlines keeping middle seats empty?

The logic behind keeping the middle seat empty is pretty obvious: the more space you can have from your fellow air travel companions, the better.

By cutting down on the possibility of interactions with other passengers, airlines are hoping to make COVID travel as safe as possible, and assuage the fears of travelers.

Which airlines are blocking middle seats?

Throughout the summer, up until September 30th, Delta Airlines is blocking the booking of middle seats. This is being managed by offering complimentary Medallion upgrades, and increasing the number of flights available so that middle seats can be kept empty in coach.

Other airlines who are following this trend are:

Southwest Airlines (through September 30th)

JetBlue (through September 8th)

Alaska Airlines (through September 30th)

Frontier Airlines (through August 31st)

Hawaiian Airlines (through August 31st)

However, two of the biggest airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines are now booking at full capacity.

In a call with reporters, United’s chief communications officer Josh Earnest claimed that “blocking middle seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.”

But is that true?

Empty middle seats: The Science

A new research paper out of MIT, titled “Covid-19 Risk Among Airline Passengers: Should the Middle Seat Stay Empty?” has found that blocking out the middle seat for air travel could cut the risk of contracting coronavirus by half.

Arnold Barnett, the author of the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, highlights that when it comes to potentially catching coronavirus:

  • When all seats are filled, there is a 1 in 4300 chance
  • When the middle seat is empty, there is a 1 in 7700 chance

So while it might be tempting to suggest that blocking the middle seat is a PR stunt, there’s beginning to be data to suggest that’s not true, though the paper is still without peer review.

The Take-Away

The truth is that the airlines blocking middle seats are risking huge financial losses from lost customer revenue, and it seems like each airline is taking an individual approach in balancing economics with health data.

As we start to adjust to COVID travel realities, it will be interesting to see if travelers select flights based on middle-seat-empty or similar policies, or if the cheaper fares continue as top dog.

Currently, no airline has official plans to keep blocking the middle seat past September 30. But pandemic airline policies have come, gone, and been extended multiple times, so what happens in October is anybody’s guess.