Widebody aircraft interior showing rows of empty seats and seatback screens

Op-Ed: Should pandemic passenger safety be sold to the highest bidder?

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RGN OP-ED Banner with blue back ground and black wingtipIf you’re sitting directly next to someone else on a two-hour US domestic flight, there’s a 1 in 4,300 possibility that you’ll contract COVID-19, but 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is left empty, suggests a preprint article by Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at MIT.

It’s important to note that Barnett’s work has yet to be peer reviewed, and his acknowledged margin of error is roughly 2.5. But even in that case, we are likely talking about what the British Medical Journal – in its Evidence Based Medicine toolkit – cites as a “low risk”: between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000.

The US Insurance Information Institute suggests that this sort of “low risk” would be about the same likelihood of dying — in a single year, with data from 2018 — from causes including: “accidental poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances” (1 in 5,243), “drug poisoning” (1 in 5,554), “opioids (including both legal and illegal)” (1 in 7,695) and “all motor vehicle accidents” (1 in 8,303).

It is notable that the United States considers opioids as an epidemic. For comparison, the same institute calculates that the one-year odds of death in 2018 from “air and space transport accidents” is 1 in 879,302. So, the chance of dying from air travel is usually in the 1 in the hundreds of thousands, but COVID-19 changes that by orders of magnitude.

Barnett notes that the COVID-19 mortality risk is somewhere between one death per 400,000 and 600,000 passengers, explaining that “these death-risk levels are considerably higher than those associated with plane crashes but comparable to those arising from two hours of everyday activities during the pandemic.”

It should also of course be noted that calculating these numbers in the United States, where the response to COVID-19 has been notably weaker than many other industrialized countries, will affect the likelihood.

But nonetheless, the statistics suggest that having someone in the middle seat roughly doubles the likelihood of catching COVID-19 on an aircraft.

Is it ethical and equitable for airlines to allow only those passengers with the money to buy the spare seat next to them to reduce the risk?

Enter ancillary revenue platform Plusgrade, which is offering a new product called Dynamic Seat Blocker to allow passengers to purchase an empty seat or the entire row “at a fixed price set by the airline”.

Dynamic Seat Blocker, says the company, “provides airlines with a must-have solution that meets both traveler and revenue needs, while building on existing sanitization measures. It offers passengers the ability to purchase an empty seat or row next to them at a fixed price set by the airline, guaranteeing that no one sits next to them.”

A Plusgrade study suggests that this is “a choice over 31% of travelers said they would purchase on a 2 hour flight”.

Delta, JetBlue and Southwest are presently blocking middle seats. But it is clear that some aviation stakeholders are searching for a way to monetize keeping adjacent seats empty.

Indian low-cost carrier SpiceJet is enabling passengers to “create your own space by booking an entire row. You can also book two seats together. With it, just sit back, relax and enjoy a contactless, stress-free flying experience.”

Alaska Airlines, which says it is limiting the number of guests on flights and blocking seats through 31 October, recently ran a sale advertised as “get the row with BOGO”, a buy-one-get-one-free promotion where passengers receive a second ticket on the same flight for just the taxes and fees.

“While this offer is over stay tuned for more chances to save,” says Alaska’s web site.

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Fundamentally, air travel is essential infrastructure, as airlines themselves have been arguing in their quest for governmental support. It is a part of our modern lives, and geographical (and thus social) mobility has been built around reasonably priced, extremely safe airline travel. In the age of COVID-19, air travel is no longer extremely safe as previously defined.

Commercial aviation loves to say it is unique, and that it deserves unique treatment. In some cases that may be true. But during COVID-19, all kinds of businesses, from restaurants to retail, from office employees to factory workers, are affected by physical distance requirements.

Imagine if a company provided only employees earning above a certain threshold with desks that were appropriately physically distanced. Or a restaurant offered two menus, one higher priced in a section further apart from others, and one at its regular prices with diners packed in cheek-by-jowl.

As is often the case, governments have shown an unwillingness to regulate aviation for the public good. In the US alone, there is no federal mandate for masks on aircraft or empty middle seats. Change is required.

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