The big middle-seat-in-aircraft question in India doesn’t concern armrests, but why the ministry of civil aviation believes it is alright to seat people there.

One reason could be that it doesn’t really help the cause of social distancing. Most studies suggest that six feet is the optimal distance between people (to prevent transmission of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19), although there are some that claim that some exhalations could travel 14 feet, maybe even more. Removing the middle seat isn’t going to increase the distance between passengers to six feet. Then, there’s the question of rows. The distance between two rows, even in full-service (as opposed to low-cost) airlines isn’t six feet. Sure, every bit of social distancing helps, but to what extent? (Answer: I don’t know, but it is a question that merits study).

Reducing the number of passengers by insisting on keeping middle seats empty is also something that will wreak havoc on the economics of flying — another factor that may have played a role in the ministry’s decision.

The one legitimate question is why the civil aviation ministry is allowing people over the age of 75 to fly. Sure, there are a lot of healthy people over that age out there (and more power to them), but with trends around the world indicating a clear correlation between age and Covid-19 fatality rates, shouldn’t the ministry have taken at least this decision on the basis of science (and in the interest of a very vulnerable section of the population)? Instead, it seems to have left this to the good sense of individuals.

Screening, social distancing in the airport, and wearing masks will help, no doubt, but only to some extent given that most people infected by Sars-CoV-2, the virus which causes the coronavirus disease, remain asymptomatic. Rapid testing is perhaps the only failsafe way of ensuring a traveller isn’t infected (or is immune), but many of these tests are still in their infancy in terms of sophistication and efficacy. It isn’t difficult to foresee a future where a quick test, perhaps at an automated kiosk, is part of the standard check-in procedure at airports, nor one where people who are immune to the disease have cards validating their eligibility to travel — but that isn’t going to happen right now (or very soon).

Another question that comes up repeatedly in the context of air travel in the midst of the pandemic is the quality of air in aircraft. Almost all modern airplanes have air that is of very high quality, thanks to high-end filtering systems. The air in aircraft is cleaner than that in homes (most home air conditioners use very basic filters) and perhaps even offices and malls. I personally find the air inside aircraft a little too dry, but it is safe.

The surfaces inside aircraft are probably as safe as surfaces in other public places — which means they aren’t safe at all. Anyone who wants to fly should be equipped with disinfectant wipes. I’d stopped using them a few years ago — most are not compostable or biodegradable and are very bad for the environment — but have gone back to them with a vengeance.

I used them liberally during a trip I made down south in February (causing some raised eyebrows among the cabin crew and yes, I also wore a mask) but on the last trip I made by air, a week before the first lockdown, I found many others using them.

Given that only those who absolutely have to fly will, I think it’s wonderful to have the option.

As for the armrest, modern aircraft etiquette has the answer — the middle seat gets both armrests.

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