Is it safe to sit in the middle seat on an airplane?

October 27, 2020
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After posting record losses, Southwest Airlines announced that it will no longer block the middle seat on flights starting Dec. 1.

United and American Airlines have also announced they will resume selling the middle seat.

The airline cited several studies which suggest that the filtration systems on flights combined with mask wearing are very effective at reducing transmission of the coronavirus.

Air travel has plummeted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with passengers hesitant to travel generally and fearful of being confined on a plane with dozens or hundreds of strangers for an extended period of time.

“The information we have now about flying and the risks of getting COVID while flying has evolved since the beginning of the epidemic,” said Dr. Lisa Lee, public health expert and professor at Virginia Tech on KCBS Radio’s “Ask An Expert” program Monday. “We know that the airflow in airplanes is pretty good. It’s better than most homes and offices in terms of pulling in outside air, and the direction is fairly safe, from top to bottom rather than across.”

Many experts say that flying is a lower risk activity than previously thought, but that distancing on the plane and mask wearing are important components of reducing that risk.

“It’s pretty important that we recognize that transmission can happen anytime we’re close to another person and possibly breathing in what they exhale,” said Dr. Lee. “The more space we have between each other - even when masked - on an airplane is better.”

Aerosol experts largely agree that indoor air filtration systems are not a substitute for distancing or masking, because if you are sitting near someone you can be exposed to their breath and droplets before it reaches air filters.

Dr. Lee says she still avoids traveling unless it is a necessity.

“Follow these basic guidelines: stay six feet or more away from others, wear your mask, wash your hands often and don’t travel if you’re sick.”

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