Members of the Airlines for Europe (A4E) group insist air travel is safe for passengers, arguing the air filters on modern aircraft limit the risks of Covid-19 transmission in flight.

However, A4E has come out forcefully against social distancing on flights, warning “it’s not viable” for airlines.

A4E includes British Airways and Iberia owner IAG, Lufthansa, Ryanair, easyJet and Air France-KLM as members.

The group argues the high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in use on mdern aircraft “clean cabin air to operating theatre quality”.

Yet A4E has also called for additional safety measures, including temperature checks on passengers and crew, and suggested: “Passengers should bring and wear their own face masks throughout the journey”.

The group wants “a global approach to ensure consistent standards across the sector”.

A4E insisted social distancing on aircraft, “including leaving middle seats free, is unnecessary and ineffective, given the efficient air filtration and clean cabin environment”.

Some carriers, including easyJet, have said they will leave middle seats empty on flights when services resume to encourage confidence among passengers.

However, the chief executives of others – including Ryanair and IAG – have said their airlines won’t fly with middle seats empty.

In a statement, A4E said: “These advanced filters continuously clean the air on board, which is replaced on average every three minutes.

“As a result, the air in the cabin is comparable with the sterile environment of a hospital operating theatre.”

It argued: “Physical separation on board, including leaving middle seats free, is not viable for the air transport industry.

“It would reduce the maximum number of passengers on board to 50%-66% of aircraft capacity [when] airlines require planes to be at least 77% full to break even.”

A4E noted research by airline association Iata suggests: “There is little evidence supporting passenger-to-passenger transmission of Covid-19 on board an aircraft even without additional protective measures in place.

“A4E is nevertheless recommending that all passengers wear their own face masks throughout the journey, in order to protect other passengers.”

Thomas Reynaert, A4E managing director, said: “Any form of physical distancing is unnecessary, ineffective and simply impractical given the desired result can be achieved by wearing face masks in an already sterile cabin environment.”

Iata has suggested several reasons for limited Covid-19 transmission on-board flights, in addition to the HEPA filters.

These include the fact that passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interaction, seats provide a barrier, air flow from ceiling to floor reduces the potential for transmission, and air-flow rates are high.