The two largest Canadian airlines, Air Canada and WestJet have announced they will end on board social distancing policies from July 1st. American Airlines will revert to flying at full capacity the same day. Qatar Airways does not support social distancing on board and has introduced its own safety measures.
The Need for Social Distancing Measures on Board Planes
Social distancing has been a prime requirement in the fight against the coronavirus. Economically, it is a disaster for the airlines. They would either have to accept a loss of revenue or increase fares by a significant amount. But, does it really work anyway? Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways claims social distancing in the cabin of an aircraft is not a practical solution to the spread of infection. He says there is still a chance of coming into close contact with someone when trying to go to a seat. He feels social distancing should be replaced by other precautions, equally as effective.
Air Canada and Westjet will revert to the health recommendations set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Coronavirus Health Recommendations Set up by IATA and ICAO
IATA has called for an end to in-flight physical distancing rules. It supports the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board aircraft. Which it sees as a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to traveling by air. IATA does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty.
IATA recommends the following additional precautions:
- Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers, and travellers,
- Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew,
- 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.
These recommendations are based on a scientific approach to enable airlines to operate within a system that makes financial sense. As early as May, the organisation claimed there was evidence that the risk of transmitting the virus aboard a plane was low even without special measures. This is probably due to the use of face coverings, advanced air-filtration systems, and a ceiling-to-floor airflow pattern.
Above all passengers must feel confident before they will start flying again. There is a need for clear international standards.
Clarity and Communication of Safety Measures on Flights
The current situation is confusing for passengers. Different measures have been introduced by different organisations, for example Italy announced overhead lockers should not be used and some airports administer temperature checks. It is time for communication between governments and all sectors of the aviation industry to agree industry protocols.