Passengers might hate getting jammed into the middle seat on planes but leaving it empty is not going to lower their risk of catching coronavirus, argues an industry group of the Continent’s largest airlines.
That was their message ahead of Wednesday’s virtual meeting of EU transport ministers on how to restore travel amid the pandemic, which has grounded 90 percent of Europe’s air traffic.
In a letter to the ministers dated Monday, lobby group Airlines for Europe (A4E) said: “Social distancing is neither necessary nor viable on board an aircraft.” Both Lufthansa and easyJet have promised to keep some seats free as a temporary measure while the industry gets back up and running.
But Brussels’ major aviation lobby (which represents 16 airlines, including Lufthansa and easyJet) argued it is impossible for flight crews to operate an aircraft maintaining a 2-meter distance from passengers or each other, and that there is no financially viable model for any airline that is forced to fly a plane only two-thirds full.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the idea “idiotic” and said if his budget airline is required to fly with the middle seat vacant, the carrier will either charge the government for the seat or it won’t fly. “We can’t make money on 66 percent load factors,” he told the FT last week. “Even if you do that, the middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway,” he said.
That doesn’t mean airlines have a clear idea as to how they will start making money again.
As the rate of infections decreases across Europe, governments are looking to reopen their economies, but they have to temper that by ensuring the virus does not spread. Those efforts largely center on keeping people physically distanced and avoiding groups in confined spaces — something that’s impossible on a plane.
Policymakers, regulators and the industry are busy coming up with a plan that could minimize risk for travelers and crew as some air travel is slated to return. EU aviation regulator EASA is drawing up safety guidelines for the industry, and in the meantime airports are working on their own best practices that require changes in disinfection routines, installing coronavirus testing facilities and temperature checks, and reorganizing gates to ensure space between people.
On Monday, Italy issued guidelines for air transport, including mandatory masks, temperature checks for passengers and “one-way” corridors for arriving and departing passengers at airports to prevent crowding.
Can’t stay away
Lufthansa is for now keeping the middle seat empty on all flights, but with 90 percent of its fleet grounded and rock-bottom demand, that’s relatively easy to achieve.
A poll commissioned by global airline lobby IATA found that 40 percent of respondents are willing to wait up to six months before getting on a plane. About 60 percent said they could expect to be on a flight within the next two months.
Once demand returns, a distancing policy will be hard to maintain. And budget airlines including Ryanair need the plane to be full in order to be profitable.
Mandatory social distancing on aircraft would be “the end of cheap air travel,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general, said in a call with reporters last week.
“There is no viable airline model with social distancing (of any kind) in place onboard the aircraft,” A4E told POLITICO in an email.
Instead, airlines want airports to take responsibility for spotting any health risks at departure. “Public health safety should be approached like aviation security — with passenger screening carried out on the ground in order to ensure safety on board,” A4E said.
It suggests screening procedures and facilities should be paid for by governments.
The sector is also asking EU ministers to ensure that any changes are coordinated. Brussels and the industry have warned national capitals that if restrictions ease in the haphazard way they were imposed, it could take even longer for airlines to start flying again.
“We cannot afford to exit this crisis the way we got into it,” Jost Lammers, the CEO of Munich airport and president of airport lobby ACI-Europe, said in a statement Tuesday.
“There must also be coherence when it comes to the operational measures that both airports and airlines will need to comply with. This is going to be essential if we want these measures to be not only effective — but also to secure public confidence,” Lammers said.
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