43% air fare hike in Middle East if social distancing enforced on planes

Published: 6 May 2020 - 5 a.m.

Air passengers and crew should wear masks while on-board aircraft but enforcing social distancing measures on planes is not worth the cost, says the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Proposals to keep the middle seat unoccupied on planes to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during flights have been floated in recent weeks.

But IATA has said that keeping middle seats free on planes would incur unnecessary costs for airlines and cause the average air fare in the Middle East to rise by 43% to $259.

The aviation trade body said that introducing masks would be adequate protection for passengers and crew would avoid “dramatic cost increases”.

Instead of social distancing, IATA has suggested alternative measures including temperature screening, adjusting boarding processes, limiting movement in-flight, more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning and adjusted catering procedures.

“Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s CEO. “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.”

IATA also floated the idea of “immunity passports” as a temporary measure but maintained that restricting the use of the middle seat was ineffective.

The association said there are several plausible reasons why Covid-19, 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.

The reasons, IATA said, include the fact that passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions, seats provide a barrier to transmission forward, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread and High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to hospital operating theatre quality.

It said that even if mandated, 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.

Economic Impact

IATA warned that enforcing social distancing on aircraft would slash load factor down to 62%, well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77%.

Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically—between 43% and 54% 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 de Juniac.

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