Social distancing on airplanes just got a whole lot harder now that middle seats are being filled again

social distancing on airplanes is coming to an end
Photo via SuperJet International/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the pandemic first struck, companies around the globe took steps to ensure the safety of their patrons while also allowing business to proceed as usual. Airlines, eager to encourage passengers to book flights, began blocking middle seats in rows with three or more seats. This allowed passengers to maintain a safer distance while traveling. As more Americans receive their COVID-19 vaccines, however, social distancing on airplanes is coming to an end.

Delta was the final major airline to announce the end of its social distancing efforts while in the air. Other major airlines—including American, United, and Southwest—resumed selling all seats on flights months ago. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, the longest holdouts apart from Delta, stopped their social distancing measures in January. 

Delta announced its decision to resume maximum passenger capacity at the end of March. Social distancing on Delta airplanes came to an official end on May 1, after officials at the airline determined that it was reasonably safe to do so. One of the factors behind the decision, according to Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian, was the belief that approximately 65% of Delta passengers are expected to have at least one dose of vaccine by early May. 

As they resume normal passenger capacity, airlines are pointing to a study to reassure potential passengers of the safety of air travel.

The industry-backed study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that planes can be a relatively safe mode of transportation if proper safety measures are followed. Passengers should remain constantly masked while on flights and consistently sanitize.

The study did note that social distancing on airplanes was beneficial, but accepted that most airlines would likely resume normal capacity regardless. 

Passengers preparing to book a flight should keep the lack of social distancing measures in mind. If a passenger is high-risk, unvaccinated, and concerned about the shift in airline policy, they may want to consider another mode of transportation. For everyone else, experts and airlines agree that reopening that middle seat is unlikely to lead to a big boost in coronavirus infections.

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Sources: Washington Post, Harvard

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