The economic implication of physical distancing onboard and attendant vacant middle seats has been estimated to cost the industry more and therefore not sustainable.
According to estimates, distancing measures on aircraft would shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 per cent. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 per cent.
Already, a local airline, Dana Air, has hinted on the plans to keep the middle seats vacant for a while once commercial flights resume.
But with fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically—between 43 per cent and 54 per cent depending on the region—just to break even.
Therefore, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has rejected the idea of keeping the onboard middle seats vacant as parts of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
As an alternative, the apex body for 280 global airlines opts for the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for the crew while on board aircraft as a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to travelling by air.
IATA does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty, IATA’s Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alexandre de Juniac, said.
Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring.
De Juniac said the safety of passengers and crew was paramount. “The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely.
“Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. And we will take measures—such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by the crew—to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit,” he said.
IATA recommends mandatory face-coverings for passengers and masks for the crew as one of several actions to reduce the already low risk of contracting COVID-19 on board aircraft.
In addition to face coverings, these layers of temporary biosecurity measures being proposed include temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travellers, boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew.
Others are: limiting movement within the cabin during flight, more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.
When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures.
Evidence, although limited, suggests that the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.
There are several plausible reasons why COVID-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission and is different from other modes of public transport: Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions, and seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin.
Also, air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin. Moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments
High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.
Moreover, even if implemented keeping the ‘middle seat’ open will not provide the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Most authorities recommend 1m-2m while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.
“The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little evidence of onboard transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not.”
“We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective COVID-19 test that can be administered at scale. Work on all of these is promising. But none will be realised before we will need to re-start the industry. That’s why we must be ready with a series of proven measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of in-flight transmission. And we must be careful not to hard-wire any solution so we can be quick in adopting more efficient measures as they will undoubtedly become available,” de Juniac said.