After a tumultuous 2020, the global airline industry has begun returning to some sense of normalcy as the global COVID-19 transmission rates began plateauing in certain parts of the world. As passenger demand steadily rose and aviation regulations relaxed, most airlines worldwide naturally ceased the practice of blocking middle seats on flights. Researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Kansas State University used laboratory models to simulate how much exposure to virus particles could be reduced when middle seats are kept vacant in an aircraft cabin. Updating CDC travel guidelines, the CDC released a study on April 14, 2021 stating that blocking middle or adjacent seats between air passengers can reduce coronavirus risks.
“A case study of COVID-19 transmission on a flight with mandated mask-wearing suggests that some virus aerosol is emitted from an infectious masked passenger, such that distancing could still be useful,” the CDC researchers said. As a matter of fact, the study also sheds light on how wearing a mask does not completely assure complete passenger safety if the traveler is already infected. As a consequence, airlines that eliminate the practice of blocking middle or adjacent seats between passengers could well place them into peril.
The recent CDC study will clearly ruffle some feathers, and counter existing airline lobbying efforts. In May 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) pledged its support to the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for the crew while boarding the aircraft. However, it was not in favor of leaving middle seats empty between passengers as it fundamentally skewed the economics of aviation.
THE BALANCING ACT
As borders reopen and travelers of all sorts – repatriation, essential workers, diplomats, tourists, work permits – take to the skies, a majority of airlines have relaxed onboard social distancing policies due to the increase in passenger traffic and an opportunity to bump up load factors and revenues. However, in the light of COVID-19, especially at times of waves, the need of the hour is to streamline passenger-centric COVID-19 safety and health protocols. In that context, only a handful of airlines continue to prioritize onboard social distancing via vacant seats.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has been among the top airlines in North America and the world to block adjacent seats for the better part of the last 12 months. More recently, however, the airline announced its intention of unblocking middle seats on flights starting from May 1, 2021. An underlying reason behind the decision could be the U.S. vaccination efforts, wherein nearly 87.9 million people are fully vaccinated.
According to Safe Travel Barometer, the following airlines continue to block middle or adjacent seats to assure maximum passenger safety, as of April 27, 2021:
Beyond the above carriers, few other airlines also offer travelers the choice of booking middle seats to ensure their peace of mind. Middle Eastern airlines such as Qatar Airways and Emirates, China Southern Airlines, Qantas Airways, AirAsia, SpiceJet are among the 30+ airlines that allow passengers to book an additional adjacent seat.
REVISITING RECOVERY STRATEGIES
As airlines try and assess various strategies to maintain utmost travel convenience it is difficult to juggle between different standards of safety. Approaches to physical distancing, including keeping middle seats vacant are initiatives that were reinforced by airlines when borders reopened. But for the airline industry that was hoping for a return of travelers who disappeared during the peaks of the pandemic, the new CDC travel guidelines recommendations puts it in a tough spot for recovery.