The International Air Transport Association (IATA) warns that face masks are critical, but requiring airlines to block middle seats would be disastrous. Would you pay 50% more for that sense of security?
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, framed the argument in terms of necessity:
“The safety of passengers and crew is 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 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.”
Additional arguments against social distancing on airplanes are made, including:
- There is little to no evidence of transmission spread onboard (based upon contact tracing results)
- Seats providing a barrier to transmission
- Onboard airflow minimizes risk
- Keeping middle seats open will not recommended separation for “safe” social distancing
But that’s not the main concern. The main concern is the economics of enforcing blocked middle seats. IATA argues that airfare would rise 43% – 54% (depending upon region) over 2019 levels simply to break even.
Therefore, de Juniac argues that open middle seats will depress travel demand and lead to more airlines going out of business:
“Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset that with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from COVID-19’s economic devastation.”
What Is Really Necessary To Solve The Problem?
IATA proposes three solutions, any of which would mitigate the need for blocking middle seats.
- immunity passport
- effective, rapid, widespread COVID-19 testing
As I’ve discussed before, though, a so-called immunity passport might create more problems than it solves.
I’m not in favor of social distancing onboard airplanes because it just doesn’t make sense from a practical or scientific standpoint. But perhaps framing the issue in terms of rising airfare prices is a better way to address whether consumers really have a tolerance for a new era of onboard social distancing…