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Covid-19: IATA Says No to Leaving Airlines’ Middle Seats Empty

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday that it does not support mandating Covid-19 social distancing measures that would leave the middle seats of air carriers empty.

According to IATA, evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.

“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,” IATA says.

The association underlined that there are several plausible reasons why the coronavirus, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission, and why air travel is different from other modes of public transport:

IATA logo– Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions
– Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward or ft in the cabin
– 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 hospital operating theater quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation

Moreover, even if mandated, IATA said that keeping the middle seat open will not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Most authorities recommend 1m-2m while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.

“Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end.” – IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac

Economic Impact

IATA said that calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 percent. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 percent.

With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically—between 43 percent and 54 percent depending on the region—just to cover costs.

“Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset 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,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

Measures to reduce the already low risk of onboard transmission

Emirates crew onboard wear a protective disposable gown over their uniforms and a safety visor in addition to masks and gloves.

IATA recommends mandatory face-coverings for passengers and masks for 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 travelers,
– 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.

“When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures,” IATA says.

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