IATA rejects blocking middle seats to prevent virus spread


Social distancing measure would be expensive and unjustified according to the airline association, despite a growing band of operators prohibiting middle seat use

IATA has dismissed the blocking out of middle seats on aircraft is unnecessary in combatting Covid-19 spread despite further carriers implementing the measure under revised operating procedures.

Prohibiting middle seat sales would not prevent passengers on aisle and window berths breaching the recommended 1-2 metre separation distances stipulated under social distancing guidelines, IATA said.

The airline association also cited evidence that Covid-19 was passed on as a droplet rather than an airborne particle and therefore far less likely to be transmitted between people in adjacent seating positions than those situated face-to-face.

IATA’s rebuttal came as airlines including Delta and Hawaiian promoted the blocking out of middle seats as a key health and safety measure to their passengers.

In a message to customers, Delta CEO Ed Bastian, revealed the airline was even blocking select aisle and window seats on smaller aircraft without a middle seats “to give you even more peace of mind”.

However, IATA rejected seating restrictions and called on the industry to restore passenger confidence through the use of protective masks and temperature screening instead.

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA said: “In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not.”

Blocking out middle seats would limit airline load factors to around 62% – well below the industry break even factor of 77%, IATA stated. However, the rejection of middle seat blocking was based on scientific as well as economic reasoning, the airline association added.

The risk of in-flight virus transmission was minimal, even without additional precautions IATA claimed. The airline association cited contract tracing efforts where passengers displaying Covid-19 symptoms had flown between China and the US and China and Canada had shown no resulting onboard transmission.

These cases have led to growing scientific consensus that Covid-19 is spread by droplets rather than more virulent airborne transmission.

The resulting risk of infection to air passengers was therefore low, IATA concluded and further reduced by aircraft design features including:
  • Seats row arrangements that provide a barrier to virus transmission from front to back of the cabin
  • High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation