New research from scientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has produced more insight into the chances of catching COVID-19 on a flight, and how people can still make their way around the world, while minimizing the risks. According to MIT Professor Arnold Barnett, the chances of catching COVID-19 on a domestic US flight with a duration of two hours, are 1 in 4,300, or 1 in 7,700 if the airline blocks middle seats. The margin of error factor of 2.5 for the research.

The death-risk level is comparable to those arising from two hours of everyday activities during the pandemic. The purpose of the study was to see if blocking middle seats actually mattered. The science behind whether blocking middle seats helps reduce the risk has been highly debated, with some like Doctor Anthony Fauci expressing disappointment that certain airlines refuse to block middle seats, while some say it damages airline finances more than it helps reduce risk.

The results which are awaiting peer review indicate blocking middle seats created a safety factor of 1.8, which is a substantial margin. Simply, you’re just under half as likely to catch COVID-19 on a flight if the middle seats are blocked, compared to flights where middle seats are not.

The methodology used to conduct the study looked at 3 questions. First, the study examined the probability that someone on board may already be infected with COVID-19, which is at the moment certainly much higher in the USA, compared to many other nations like Australia. Second, the study wanted to try and quantify how successful mask and other hygiene and distancing measures could be in curbing the flow of COVID-19, in case an infected traveller was on board. Third, the study looked at risks associated with position of seating, in relation to an infected person on a flight.

According to the research, the high-grade HEPA filters used on board aircraft, which are not usually part of other types of mass transit are very effective. The filters are considered to make a big difference in reducing spread. Airlines are correct when they contend that air-purification systems on jet aircraft largely reduce the risk of aerosol transmission of Covid-19. Therefore a contagious passenger in their seat in their will pose little risk to another traveler seated in a different row.

The study also addressed the option that the passenger may be seated directly next to a passenger-carrying COVID-19. It’s here that scientific data leaned towards blocking middle seats as a policy. The risk reduced depending on the distance between the passengers. As expected, you’re most at risk if you’re right next to infected passenger, but with droplet transmission curbed through universal mask-wearing, and distance creating an extra barrier, each meter cuts the risk in half.

It’s not hard to then understand why rigorous aircraft cleaning in between each flight can make a meaningful difference along with various precaution measures in place during the flight.