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The Aircraft Middle Seat Conundrum

by Ajay Prakash

With COVID-19 cases still on the rise, the fight against the pandemic is going to be a long drawn affair. Airlines are trying to get back into flying, but are facing innumerable hurdles – low passenger traffic, country-specific flight regulations, huge financial issues etc. Surprisingly, in all this – allocating the middle seat in an aeroplane has become a controversial issue.

Credits: SuperJet International SSJ100 for Interjet | © Wikimedia Commons

Middle seat never finds favour with passengers. With distancing norms applicable, it has become a major issue for airlines whether or not to assign the middle seat to passengers.

The MIT Report

In mid-July, Professor Arnold Barnett (George Eastman professor of management science and statistics at MIT Sloan School of Management) published a research report that said, blocking the middle seat in an aeroplane does cut the risk of getting infected by fifty per cent (50%). The study took into account several factors such as flight statistics, performance and cleaning of aeroplane HEPA filters, and disease spread statistics.

The paper makes its hypothesis based on passengers sitting in the economy sections of two widely-used aircraft: the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 which are single-aisle aircraft with three seats on either side.

The study was conducted in response to the divide in US airlines’ policies when it came to allocating the middle seat during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The study also indicated that the risk of getting infected by COVID-19 on a flight remains extremely low as long as everyone on the flight wears their masks in the correct manner for the whole duration. The chances of anyone catching the Coronavirus on a normal flight is 1:4300, which drops to 1:7700 if the middle seat is kept vacant.

How are airlines responding

Though governments have so far refrained from giving out any ruling on this issue, airlines have been coming out with their own directives and policies.

United Airlines had earlier reacted to the middle seat issue stating –

“Blocking the middle seat is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.”

American Airlines and United Airlines have been allocating each and every seat on their aircraft. Delta and Southwest have been leaving the middle seat empty, saying that they want to provide ‘social distancing’ to the crews and passengers.

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Empty Middle Seat|  © Dallas Morning News

Face masks are mandatory on all British Airways flights except when a passenger is eating or drinking. However, usage of middle seats are not blocked.

Both Alaska Airlines and JetBlue has said that social distancing norms will remain in place this fall and the middle seat will not be assigned.

In India, Vistara, Indigo and Go Air and allowing passengers to ‘buy’ an empty middle seat if they wish to maintain social distancing.

The economics of the middle seat

The question remains – what is the cost of keeping a middle seat vacant. As it is, airlines are under severe financial stress and will likely make optimum use of their fleet. They can barely afford to let go of any revenue at this stage.

How much are passengers willing to pay extra for keeping a middle seat vacant?

According to a survey conducted by Business Insider –

To keep middle seats open, flyers say they would pay up to a seventeen per cent (17%) premium on their airfare. The new research comes as airlines are divided as to whether or not to book flights to capacity or continue to block middle seats for the indefinite future.

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for COVID-19, told BBC News: “So the one good thing about aeroplanes is that the ventilation system includes really powerful filters which mean that in our view they are relatively safer.” In addition, the MIT study also indicates that there is a very low chance of catching the Coronavirus on a flight.

It appears that there is nothing much to worry about while flying provided you keep yourself well protected.

What is your opinion on keeping the middle seat vacant? Do write to us in the comments section below.

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