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Physical distancing directive unsettles local airlines

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The subsisting directive on physical distancing and keeping middle seats in commercial flights vacant have continued to unsettle local airlines ahead of resumption.

The airlines yesterday insisted that the Federal Government should cancel the directive as well as the plan compelling them to operate at 50 to 70 per cent flight capacity.

Also, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has rallied against the onboard physical distancing, saying there is no scientific evidence to show that the measure prevents coronavirus spread.

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Rather, according to estimates, distancing measures on aircraft would shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 per cent. (That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 per cent.)

With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, airfares would need to go up dramatically—between 43 per cent and 54 per cent, depending on the region—just to break even.

Except Dana Air that has hinted on the plans to observe the vacant middle seats as a test-run once commercial flights resume, no other local airline has pledged to keep the rule.

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The Chairman of Air Peace airlines, Allen Onyema, said safety and security remained the priority of all, and that efficient measures were being deployed in a manner that the new normal would not further hurt the business.

Onyema said Air Peace had, for instance, devised an innovative boarding method to minimise contact and also implement some form of organised boarding, first with Economy Class before Business Class travellers, “which is more effective than physical distancing”.

“We are totally against middle seat removal, it is arrant nonsense because that middle seat cannot stop anyone who is going to get Covid-19 from getting it. In the first place, if you do only aisle and the window seats, it is not up to two meters. So what are we talking about?”

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The chief operating officer of another airline added that the local airlines in good times required at least 95 per cent capacity to break even.

“Very few of us cover the mark. That was when business was good. Now, the business is a bigger struggle and still in the midst of a major crisis. So, telling airlines to do 70 per cent operation and not airlift passengers when they are available is strange. If we go that route, no airline will survive,” the COO said.

As an alternative to the vacant middle seat, IATA, the apex body for 280 global airlines, opts for the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by the crew while onboard aircraft as a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity measures.

IATA’s Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alexandre de Juniac, said evidence suggested that the risk of transmission on board aircraft was low. “So, wearing of masks by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that the onboard social distancing measures would bring.”

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