On the heels of third-quarter losses of more than $1 billion, Southwest Airlines has announced that effective for travel beginning Dec. 1, it will resume selling all available seats on its planes. This includes the middle seats, which have been off limits for months during the pandemic, supposedly to allow for social distancing between passengers.
Is the middle seat that big a deal?
This summer, Josh Earnest, United Airlines’ chief communications officer, told CNBC that blocking middle seats is a public relations strategy, not a safety strategy.
“When you’re onboard the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within 6 feet from you,” he said. “The person at the window is within 6 feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within 6 feet of you, the people in the row behind you are within 6 feet of you.”
“It does not matter where you sit in the row,” wrote Charles Lerner, MD, a San Antonio infectious disease specialist and member of the Texas Medical Association COVID-19 Task Force, in an email on Thursday.
While the more people sitting in the row increases the potential exposure to someone with a viral respiratory infection and filling the middle seat increases that risk, Lerner explained that air circulation can help ease concerns.
“The air in an airplane circulates in a large circle in each row of seating. The air is filtered in such a way to remove viral particles before it is recirculated into the cabin, which reduces your risk while you are sitting in your seat,” he wrote.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? Here are some steps to take.
Wipe down your airplane seat.
“Wipe down the armrests and the trays with a disinfectant wipe. Use hand disinfectant after you arrive in your seat and after you stow your luggage in the overhead compartment, Lerner said.
“The greatest risk of acquiring an infection occurs when you are lined up to enter or exit the airplane. Keep your distance from the people ahead of you and behind you in line,” he added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends practicing social distancing in security lines and while going through the airport terminals, as best as possible.
But the best preparation for air travel is to wear a mask. This applies to children, too.
Wear your mask at all times during your flight and continue wearing your mask until you arrive at your destination, explained Lerner.
In flight, remember to frequently wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Here is more information on reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 when traveling this holiday season.