Airline association Iata has called for all air passengers and crew to wear face masks but has condemned calls for social distancing on flights, warning it would result in 50% higher prices.

Iata said it supports face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board aircraft “as a critical part” of temporary biosecurity measures when people return to the air.

But in a statement the association said it does not support mandating social distancing measures “that would leave middle seats empty”.


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Iata warned: “Social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62%, well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77%.

“With fewer seats to sell, air fares would need to go up dramatically – between 43% and 54% compared to 2019.”

It forecast fares in Europe would rise by 50% and argued: “Evidence suggests the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low.”

Iata director general Alexandre de Juniac said: “The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely.

“We will take measures, such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew, to add extra layers of protection.”

But he insisted: “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.”

In addition to face coverings, Iata proposes: temperature screening of passengers and airport worker, boarding and de-planing processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew; limiting movement during flight; simplified catering procedures that lower crew interaction with passengers; and more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning.

Iata said testing for Covid-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary measures when available.

But it argued against restricting the use of middle seats to create social distancing aboard aircraft, insisting: “Evidence, although limited, suggests the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.”

It noted “an informal survey” of 18 major airlines during January-March 2020 identified just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of Covid-19, all from passengers to crew “and four episodes of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot”.

An Iata examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers who were confirmed for Covid-19 infection after air travel during the same period “revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers on the same flights” and two possible cases among crew members.

Iata suggests “several plausible reasons” why Covid-19 has not resulted in more on-board transmission, arguing: passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions; seats provide a barrier to transmission; the air flow from ceiling to floor reduces the potential for transmission and 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 also pointed out keeping middle seats open would not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective.

De Juniac said: “We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective Covid-19 test that can be administered at scale.

“Work on all of these is promising. But none will be realised before we need to re-start the industry. That is why we must be ready with a series of measures.”

But he added: “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.

“If airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option.”


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