Ryanair will refuse to resume operations if it is forced to leave middle seats empty to comply with potential in-flight social distancing rules.

The no-frills carrier’s chief executive Michael O’Leary slammed the suggestion of blocking a space in between seats as “idiotic”.

Ryanair’s business model would be in tatters if governments insisted on social distancing regulations and the airline would not fly, he warned.

The carrier has told the Irish government that if it imposes the restriction, then “either the government pays for the middle seat or we won’t fly”.

Rival easyJet has indicated that flights involving social distancing could be possible in the short-term as the airline industry gets back on its feet following the coronavirus crisis.

But O’Leary believes airlines in Europe should mirror counterparts in Asia by imposing different safety measures such as requiring passengers to wear masks or checking their temperature at airports.

He told the Financial Times: “We can’t make money on 66% load factors.

“Even of you do that, the middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway.”

However, he forecast a return to normal passenger numbers by summer 2021, provided a vaccine for Covid-19 can be developed.

Ryanair would be able to pick up business from rival airlines that fail due to the pandemic.

O’Leary told Reuters last week that authorities were “floundering” in the search for reasonable health measures for a resumption of flights, with many of their officials in lockdown.

“We’re in dialogue with regulators who are sitting in their bedrooms inventing restrictions such as taking out the middle seats, which is just nonsense,” he said. “It would have no beneficial effect whatsoever.”

Vacating every third seat would not in any case maintain the required two-metre separation between passengers, which is also impossible to enforce at other “pinch points” during journeys, he added.

“People come to the airport in trains without social distancing,” he said. “You can’t do social distancing in the airport either at check-in, at security, at restaurants or shops – even the airports admit that.”

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