IATA opposes inflight social distancing, sees 50% increase in air fare

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has strongly opposes mandated social distancing on board the aircraft, instead, suggests the mandatory use of face masks and protective equipment for both the crew and passengers to ensure health security on board.

The IATA said evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. 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 director general Alexandre de Juniac said, "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."

On top of mandatory wearing of face masks and protective gear, the IATA suggests that airlines and airport authorities implement other measures like 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.

In a report from FlightGlobal, IATA chief economist Brian Pearce said that keeping the middle seat empty on narrobody aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 with a 3-3 abreast seating configuration may reduce capacity by a third. On board widebody twin-aisle aircraft, this can reduce capacity up to 40%. All these may result to an increase in air fares from 43% to 54% for airlines to break even.

In an analysis by IATA, Asia-Pacific airlines which have an average fare of US$141 may increase to US$217 or a 54% increase.

The IATA also said that the risk of transmission inside an aircraft is low even if special measures are not in place due to the following reasons:
  • Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions
  • Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft 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 operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation
De Juniac said, “The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little evidence of onboard transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not."

“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,” de Juniac continues

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