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Safety in Numbers – Covid Middle Seat Risk

Safety in Numbers – Covid Middle Seat Risk
July 29, 2020 Mike Watson

It is well known that the risk of catching Covid-19 increases as we spend more time in close proximity to people. In the early days of the crisis the possibility of not selling aircraft middle seats was discussed – with a view to minimising the risk of passengers catching Covid-19 from other passengers.

covid middle seat risk

In this article we look at the likelihood of catching Covid-19 on a plane and how much this risk might have reduced if middle seats were not available. To put it all in context we then compare the likelihoods of dying from an aircraft crash, dying from Covid-19 contracted on an aircraft, dying from Covid-19 contracted on an aircraft with no middle seats sold and dying generally from other causes. 

Statistical Model Predictions

MIT researcher Arnold Barnett has built a statistical model to predict the rate of Covid-19 transmission between passengers. More information can be found here. Barnett found that the rate of on board transmission almost doubles when the middle seat is sold by airlines taking the risk of contracting Covid-19 from 1 in 7,700 to 1 in 4,300 which corresponds to a risk of Covid death of 1 in 770,000 flights without middle seats and 1 in 430,000 for flights with middle seats.

The likelihood of dying as a result of a plane crashing is cited as 1 in 34,000,000 making the risk of dying from Covid caught in a plane with middle seats 80 times more likely than dying as a result of the plane crashing.

The likelihood of dying any way from any cause is around 1 in 60,000 per day. Based on this data (which contains many assumptions and is highly generalised) taking a flight without an occupied  middle seat raises our chance of death by around 8% compared to our daily risk of dying any way. 

With the middle seat occupied the risk increases to around 13%. This means that if we were to take one flight every day for a year our overall risk of death would increase by 13%.

Age is a factor – but the relative risks are similar because we are more likely to die, from any cause, if we are old and male and we are also more likely to die from Covid-19 if we are old and male.

Conclusions

Whilst the numbers above are inexact the following conclusions can reasonably be drawn:

  • The risk of contracting Covid-19 is significantly higher on planes where the middle seat is sold.
  • The chance of dying from Covid-19 caught on a plane is much higher than the chance of dying because that plane crashes.
  • The chance of dying from Covid-19 contracted on a plane is small compared to the chance of dying any way.

Furthermore if middle seats are not sold then the carbon emissions per person flying increase because planes are carrying fewer people whilst consuming the same amount of fuel. 

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