Study: Open middle seat on planes limits COVID-19 spread up to 57%

Next month, all of the major U.S. airlines will be back to packing full flights, however, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows blocking those middle seats was a good thing.

Having an empty middle seat can cut coronavirus transmission up to 57%, the study shows.

Industry experts say do not expect these findings to prompt commercial airlines to start distancing passengers again. Still, this data shows that was a smart decision early on in the pandemic.

The CDC study is based on modeling, not real-world data. The report suggests distancing on planes, including leaving middle seats open, can reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to passengers by 23% to 57%.

Small percentage of vaccinated people diagnosed with COVID-19

Out of the millions of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the CDC said breakthrough cases are a very small portion of them and a Tampa doctor said she was among one of them.

Infectious disease experts point out, the study does have some flaws.

"I think big most major one of which was that they modeled people sitting on the airplanes without wearing masks, and of course anybody who’s flying right now will be wearing a mask," said USF College of Public Health Distinguished Professor Dr. Thomas Unnasch. "So I think that makes a huge difference. And the other thing of course they didn’t model was the effect of vaccinations."

Current CDC guidelines recommend against travel if you have not gotten a COVID-19 shot. The agency issued an order in January requiring masks for everyone while onboard airplanes.

"If you put those two things together I think the risk of flying on an airplane even with the middle seat occupied is dramatically reduced," Unnasch said.

If you plan to take a flight, Unnasch recommends being fully vaccinated first. Earlier this month, the CDC issued new guidance for those folks including giving the green light to resume domestic and international travel.

"Once you’re vaccinated if you’re careful and wear a mask, you can early start getting your life back," said Unnasch.

Delta is the last major U.S. airline still blocking middle seats, but that is set to end on May 1.