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Coronavirus: Airlines are filling middle seats — how risky is it to sit in one?

Canadian airline companies ending physical distancing measures
WATCH: Canadian airline companies ending physical distancing measures

Air Canada and WestJet both announced they will begin selling the middle seats on their aircrafts again as Canada slowly reopens amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, but experts caution that crowded cabins are risky and could lead to further outbreaks.

As of July 1, both airlines will have their middle seats available for sale.

The moves come after the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a report earlier this month, calling for an end to physical distancing measures aboard aircraft.

Coronavirus: Canada’s top doctor comments on airlines selling middle seat on flights
Coronavirus: Canada’s top doctor comments on airlines selling middle seat on flights

However, Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he was “appalled” to learn that airlines have decided to return to selling middle seats, saying that this should “absolutely not be going on.”

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“I don’t want any Canadian taking that kind of risk,” he said.

Furness said people become infected with COVID-19 when they are in close proximity to someone who is sick with the virus.

That risk increases, he added, the longer you are in close quarters.

So an airplane is a disaster,” he explained. “You can’t get away.”

Read more: Air Canada offers refunds to some passengers with cancelled flights

He said he “absolutely would not get on an airplane that is selling a middle seat.”

“And I would never advise anyone to do that,” he said.

Furness said he doesn’t think the middle seat on airplanes should be sold until there is a vaccine against the virus.

In-flight refreshment service changes during COVID-19 pandemic
In-flight refreshment service changes during COVID-19 pandemic

“We’ve got to do this until we’ve managed to contain COVID,” he said. “Having a low amount of community spread is not the answer. It’s helpful and it makes it less risky, but all it takes is one infected person on a plane and bang, you’ve got a really bad outbreak.”

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Layers of protection

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Dr. Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said if airlines are going to begin selling middle seats again, they need to increase other layers of protection.

“Whatever you can do to make sure that your probability of spreading the virus is as low, as close to zero as possible, that means testing everybody, and then on top of that, make sure that nobody touches anything. Or if they do, (make sure) it’s sanitized, and that no one is breathing air from anybody else.”

Read more: Porter Airlines extends suspension of flights until August 31

Sly said airlines could also look into making it mandatory for passengers to provide proof that they have been tested for the virus before boarding.

However, he said if you absolutely have to board a crowded plane, there are a few things you can do to try to limit your changes of catching the virus.

First, Sly said you should sit in a window seat, because “that’s the safest place.”

“Try not to drink too much,” he said. “You don’t want to go to the bathroom.”

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WestJet to layoff more than 3,300 employees due to COVID-19 pandemic
WestJet to layoff more than 3,300 employees due to COVID-19 pandemic

Sly said all passengers should wear a mask and refrain from touching anything unless they absolutely have to.

“If you have alcohol swabs on you or spray or whatever else, wipe down the armrest and the table in front of you,” he said.

Sly also said you should adjust the air nozzle above your head so the filtered air is blowing directly on your face.

However, even then, he said, there is still a risk you could catch the virus.

What has Public Health Canada said?

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Canada’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said it’s still recommended that people maintain a two-metre distance from one another.

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“And if that cannot be done under certain circumstances, absolutely stick to all the other measures like the hand hygiene and wearing a mask,” she said.

Read more: Air Canada has more refund complaints in U.S. than any other foreign airline

Tam said when it comes to air travel, Canadians need to make some “careful decisions,” saying people should consider their own medical condition, and continue to avoid all non-essential travel amid the pandemic.

What’s more, Tam said airlines should “try really hard” to space passengers out, when possible.

Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, echoed Tam’s remarks, says physical distancing is an important measure to limit the spread of COVID-19.

He said Canadians need to make their own risk assessments when deciding if they want to travel.

“Other than that, I think all of the other measures that the airline industry has put into place — you know the temperature checks, the mandating of the masks and so on — are fine.”

What have the airlines said?

Air Canada and WestJet say there are several safety precautions that will remain in place including temperature checks, mandatory face coverings and health screening prior to boarding.

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In a statement to Global News, Air Canada pointed to its CleanCare+ program, saying surfaces are frequently sanitized.

Coronavirus: WestJet, Air Canada opening up middle seat for passengers
Coronavirus: WestJet, Air Canada opening up middle seat for passengers

According to the Air Canada website, passengers will receive an email prior to check-in if their flight is reaching capacity in economy class so that they can “explore other options” if they prefer more space onboard.

“We intend to continue evaluating new processes and technologies as they become available to further enhance safety,” the statement reads.

WestJet said it is “committed to ensuring our protocols are consistent with the best practices and advice available to us from around the world” and would be adopting the IATA guidance, and removing seat distancing measures, but would be providing additional protections in the cabin.

According to the airline’s website, cleaning aboard its aircraft has been enhanced, and each has been equipped with HEPA air filters which will be replaced frequently.

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The airline also said the airplane seats act as physical barriers, and that air will flow from the ceiling to the floor to reduce the “forward and backward movement of air.”