Qantas is working with the Australian government on getting an exemption from social-distancing rules onboard its aircraft when the carrier resumes domestic flights, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
The Australian carrier suspended domestic flights until the end of June, but it said earlier this month that the easing of government restrictions suggests some domestic travel may start to return before the end of July.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said adopting social distancing on flights by leaving middle seats vacant would lead to few passengers and very high airfares.
“Even if you take the middle seat as being empty, that’s 60 centimetres. 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,” Joyce told ABC.
Joyce also said the national airline has been operating repatriation flights from India to Australia in which middle seats were filled up and the “government is very happy with that”.
“We just need to get those practices that are on those charter flights into the domestic operation, which is our intent,” said Joyce.
Recently, the The International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents 290 airlines worldwide came out against leaving middle seats empty.
“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,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.
The global aviation body said that evidence so far, which it admitted was limited, suggested the risk of virus transmission on a plane is low “even without special measures”.
It said this is because passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions, aircraft are fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters which ensures “fresh air circulation”, and seats provide a barrier to the person in front. IATA also said air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward.
A number of major carriers such as Emirates, United, American Airlines and Japan Airlines have all blocked middle seats on all or some of their flights from being booked in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.
Some airlines have also been criticised recently for foregoing social distancing measures onboard, such as Irish carrier Aer Lingus which has come under scrutiny for running a flight from Belfast to London with no social distancing. Qantas also faced criticism last month for foregoing social distancing measures on a flight from Townsville in far north Queensland to Brisbane as photos of a packed plane emerged on social media, according to The New Zealand Herald.