Most airlines now require passengers to wear face coverings and crew masks on board aircraft. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the mouthpiece of the airline industry - considers it a temporary layered approach to biosecurity. But it may also serve another goal, as IATA looks after the aviation industry’s interests. Most likely, IATA wants to avoid the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing would imply.
IATA claims that limited evidence suggests that the risk of virus transmission on board is low, even without special measures. It presents the following reasons:
1. Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions.
2. Seats provide a barrier to transmission forward or aft in the cabin.
3. Air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin. Moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments.
4. Filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to hospital operating theater quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.
IATA admits the evidence is limited, while they fail to present any endorsement by health experts. But the biggest problem is that social distancing in planes would shoot up fares. By just blocking the middle seat average fares would increase by 49% in Europe and 43% in North America.
Middle seat open not enough
Moreover, keeping the middle seat open will not achieve the recommended separation. This varies from 150 cm (4.92 ft) in Europe to 183 cm (6 ft) in the USA. But the average seat width is less than 50 cm (1.64 ft).
So even blocking middle seats - 2 out of 6 seats in a row - wouldn’t be sufficient to realize social distancing. Rather, it would require using only the 2 window seats in each row of an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737. The other 4 seats in each row should remain open slashing the maximum load factor to 33%.
Will flying only be for the rich?
Obviously, effective social distancing would make flying so expensive that only the rich can fly. Then we would be back in the 1960s. It would be the end of air travel as we know it.
Related: Social distancing in the air
Tags: social distancing, middle seat, fares