With Australia moving closer to restoring regular domestic travel and some international flights as well, Qantas is hoping for an exemption from regular social distancing rules so that it can fill every seat on every flight: including the dreaded middle seat.
Some airlines overseas have been keeping middle seats vacant to provide further space between passengers in the cabin, but Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce argues against a ‘middle seat free’ policy.
“Even if you take the middle seat as being empty, that's 60 centimetres” between passengers in the same row, Joyce told ABC’s 7.30. “The social distancing rules are supposed to be 1.5 metres. If you did that, you'd have very few people on an aircraft and the airfares would have to be very high."
Qantas has been operating a number of repatriation flights from overseas on behalf of the Australian Government, on which middle seats are regularly filled to carry as many passengers as possible, which the Government is said to be happy with.
“We just need to get those practices that are on those charter flights into the domestic operation, which is our intent," Joyce continued. "There's been no known transmission of COVID-19 passenger to passenger or passenger to crew, and there's huge tracking been done on that in this country."
"We have the protections of how we clean aircraft, and if we put other protections in place, we think we can make a case and to make that absolutely secure and give people confidence that it's very safe to travel."
Industry body backs approach
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – to which Qantas belongs – encourages its member airlines to fill middle seats where they can, making a similar case.
“IATA does not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing while onboard aircraft,” the organisation said last week. “Evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.”
IATA argues that the nature of air travel lessens the risk of COVID-19 transmission compared to other forms of transport because passengers all face forwards with limited face-to-face interaction, and the seats themselves provide something of a barrier against transmission to passengers both in front, and behind.
It adds that air flow in the cabin – which moves from the ceiling down to the floor – also helps reduce the potential of transmission, explaining that “air flow rates are high and not conducive to (respiratory) droplets spread in the same way as in other indoor environments.”
With cabin air normally captured through vents at floor level, the air filters on modern aircraft purify that air to “hospital operating theatre quality” before releasing it back into the cabin via the ceiling, where the cycle repeats.
There's also a more basic concern: the harsh bottom line of economics. IATA claims that leaving the middle seat vacant would cripple airlines’ ability to recover and drive airfares up by around 50%, at time when airfares will need to be low in order to spike demand and get people flying again.
"Without the ability to pass on those costs in higher fares, many operations are going to really struggle to be financially viable,” warned IATA chief economist Brian Pearce. The majority of airlines would lose money if average load factors fell below 62%, which would likely be the case if every middle seat was left vacant.
Some airlines adopt social distancing
However, not all airlines are following IATA's lead. Qantas’ alliance partner Japan Airlines is just one of many carriers proactively blocking middle seats on flights, as well as aisle-side armchairs where seats are in pairs.
JAL says that while temporary, this restriction is in place “to provide customers peace of mind”, with a typical Boeing 737 flight having 57 seats unavailable for purchase, of a total of 145 seats on the plane.
Blocked middle seats are also commonplace in the United States for the time being, with American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United Airlines all enacting various restrictions on passenger selection of middle seats.
In some cases, middle seats are still being filled, such as when family members travel together – but are otherwise being kept vacant where possible.
New aircraft seats for the 'social distancing' era
The possibility of prolonged social distancing recommendations on flights has led the boffins at London-based Factorydesign to create its new Isolate module to help enforce inflight social distancing.
While still in early development, the Isolate kit clamps onto the armrests of any standard economy seat to provide “maximum personal space and separation for adjacent passengers,” Factorydesign says.
A lightweight tabletop supports a vertical screen made from either translucent thermoplastic or a lightweight foam with cleanable leather trim, providing a sense of security as well as privacy for passengers on either side.
The Isolate’s shape and surfaces are designed to remove any dirt traps and be quickly and easily cleaned between flights.
Factorydesign also says the Isolate will “have a life after the Covid-19 era” by converting short-range economy seats into a Euro-business style offering.
Also read: What is 'Euro business' business class?