COVID-19 risk halved when airplane middle seats empty, expert statistician says

As the coronavirus cases skyrocket, many countries have started to ease lockdown measures to save the ailing economy. Restaurants, malls, recreational centers, and transportation are slowly returning to normal operations. However, one of the most heavily impacted sectors amid the pandemic is the aviation industry.

The pandemic has left the aviation industry with declining passenger numbers. In 2020, the United States airline industry is projected to have a revenue loss of $252 billion. Now, airlines around the globe are cautiously resuming operations, in an attempt to reboot the industry.

Resuming flights

As of July 1, the U.S. carriers American, Spirit, and United Airlines will fill all seats on their flights when the demand warrants it. On the other hand, Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest Airlines have decided to keep middle seats empty.

Delta has said it will keep this policy through September, but Unite Airlines CEO Scott Kirby emphasized that on an airplane, there is no such thing as social distancing, which requires people to be at least six feet apart from each other.

Calculating the risk of COVID-19 infection

A new paper by an expert statistician at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and published on medRXiv*, a preprint server, has underlined the risk to an uninfected passenger from an infected passenger when the middle seat is left vacant during a flight.

The statistician, Professor Arnold Barnett at the MIT Sloan School of Management, estimated that the risk of contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is 1 in 7,000 when all the coach seats on the plane are occupied.

However, when the middle seats are left empty, the risk falls to an estimated 1 in 14,000. Hence, the researcher has found that the risk of infection on the plane is lower when flights are not full.

“These estimates imply COVID-19 mortality risks to uninfected air travelers are higher than those associated with plane crashes but probably less than one in one million,” the researcher said.

Further, the researcher said that for a coach passenger who is infected on a full flight and has a 1 percent chance of dying from the virus, the mortality risk based on the calculations would be around 1 in 700,000 when all seats are filled, and 1 in 1.4 million when the middle seats are left empty.

“However, data from late June 2020 imply that approximately 1 in 120 Americans have COVID-19 on a given day (i.e., 40,000 confirmed cases per day x 10 x 7 days is about 1/120 of the U.S. population of 330,000,000). Thus, it is not at all clear that the risk of getting infected during a flight is any higher than the risk associated with everyday activities during the pandemic,” Barnett explained.

Also, he explained that the risk estimates on a full plane or a plane with middle seats empty do not consider the risk of infection during boarding of the plane, leaving the plane, or walking down the aisle to the lavatory. If passengers leave the plane or board it without practicing social distancing, there is a possibility of infection.

Image Credit: Damian Pankowiec / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Damian Pankowiec / Shutterstock

Global toll

The coronavirus pandemic ravaged across the globe, with skyrocketing cases. The global case toll has reached more than 11.57 million cases, with a death toll topping 536,000. The United States is still the hardest-hit country, with more than 2.93 million confirmed cases and more than 130,000 deaths. Brazil trails behind with a staggering 1.62 million infections and more than 65,000 deaths.

India, Russia, Peru, Chile, and the United Kingdom report high infection numbers. India and Russia have reported more than 697,000 and 686,000 cases, respectively. Moreover, Peru and Chile follow with more than 305,000 and 298,000 infections, while the United Kingdom has at least 287,000 confirmed cases.

South America, North America, and Europe report the highest number of infections. Brazil, Peru, and Chile have high numbers of infections that are overwhelming their healthcare system.

Meanwhile, South Africa is now added to the countries on focus amid the pandemic as it reports a case toll reaching 205,721.

Still, health experts reiterate the importance of social distancing and good hygiene in battling COVID-19.  High-risk populations advised to stay at home and avoid crowded places, such as the elderly, those who are immunocompromised, and those with underlying health conditions.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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