You’re Flying Home for the Holidays. Where Should You Sit on the Plane?

Experts acknowledge that some seats could be safer than others

airplane cabins covid-19
Gerrie Vvn der Walt/Unsplash

According to a National Geographic poll released earlier this summer, only 13% of Americans are willing to hop on a plane before the end of 2020. The majority of those surveyed indicated that they wouldn’t be flying again until 2021, and most likely not until a COVID-19 vaccine had been developed and safely disseminated.

It’s unclear yet if those opinions have changed. A study from Harvard’s Aviation Public Health Initiative, for instance, found that the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane is low. It concluded that the activity even contains less risk than “grocery shopping or eating out.” But TSA checkpoint travel numbers are beginning to trend down as the second wave mounts.

Those still with flights this year — many of whom have to fly, in order to come home during the holiday season — will need to wear masks and put their trust in airplanes’ massive air filters. But it’s understandable if they’re looking for another safeguard or two against potential contraction of the virus. According to The New York Times, it’s worth spending some time thinking about exactly where you choose to sit on the flight.

Most airlines have imposed indefinite capacity limits (economy cabin won’t be filled past 70%) and some are still leaving middle seats empty entirely. In case the airline isn’t doing the latter, it’s a safe bet to book a seat next to the window. They wouldn’t put a party of two directly next to your party of one. That also gives you an extra bit of distance from the aisle, where flight attendants and those headed to the bathroom are parading by. (Though, experts stress, that brief “brush by” interaction can’t do much.)

If you’re not a window seat person, consider the middle seat of the middle aisle, which also offers some solitude. It’s highly unlikely that another booking passenger would try to nab a seat right next to you. Travel numbers are down, after all, and most people are just as concerned about getting extra elbow room this year. In case your flight is surprisingly crowded, don’t be afraid to check the airline’s app, to change your seat at the last moment. You can also talk to a flight attendant at the gate.

As someone who has been on eight flights during the pandemic, I would also point out that there’s a bit more common sense being exhibited on flights this year than you’ve probably come to expect from airlines. It’s difficult to plan for, when you’re frantically booking flights for Thanksgiving, but it’s true. I successfully switched my seat a few times this summer, during flights, after just asking the flight attendant. They get it. It’s in their best interest that everyone is comfortable and feels safe.


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