Assuming you can find a flight, one of the few upsides of flying in recent months has been the empty middle seat. It is something people have got used to very quickly. But for airlines, it isn’t a sustainable option. Always on the front foot, Qantas is tilling the soil, wanting to dampen expectations that the middle seat will be staying empty when flying resumes.
Qantas looking at alternatives to the empty middle seat
Social distancing is one of the mantras of managing this health crisis. Tackling the middle seat issue and arguing there are alternative ways to ensure passenger health, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday;
“Even if you take the middle seat as being empty, that’s 60 centimeters. The social distancing rules are supposed to be 1.5 meters. If you did that, you’d have very few people on an aircraft, and the airfares would have to be very high.”
Because demand for travel remains low, Qantas has usually been able to spread its passengers around the aircraft and keep middle seats free. There have been some well-publicized exceptions, but mostly this has been the case.
An eye on the bottom line as domestic travel demand expected to increase
But with State Governments around Australia expected to begin to unwind their interstate travel restrictions over the next month, Qantas is expecting demand for its domestic services to surge.
With an eye firmly fixed on the bottom line, Alan Joyce has no intention of unnecessarily operating half-empty flights around the country if it can be avoided. IATA estimates airfares would have to increase by 54% across the Asia Pacific region if airlines ramped up services again while keeping the middle seat empty.
That doesn’t appear to be Mr Joyce’s preferred option. Instead, he’s flagged super cheap fares to stimulate domestic travel and to ride on the back of an anticipated domestic tourism boom.
Acknowledging that Qantas would approach the Australian Government to “make the case” for an exemption to social distancing guidelines, Alan Joyce told ABC’s 7.30 on Monday evening.
“There’s been no known transmission of COVID-19 passenger to passenger or passenger to crew, and there’s huge tracking been done on that, in this country.
“We have a lot of other protections (in addition to social distancing). We have to show that they can apply to domestic. No conclusions have been reached.”
Qantas already has a suite of health and hygiene measures in place
Qantas rightly states that it has a raft of health and hygiene measures in place that have worked well thus far.
The airline notes it is cleaning its planes to the highest standards using strong disinfectants. This includes cleaning and disinfecting the cabin’s surfaces and fixtures. Despite COVID-19 not being an airborne virus, Qantas also highlights its operating theatre grade HEPA air filtration systems.
In addition, the mandatory use of face masks by passengers is being flagged. That’s already occurring on some airlines, including Air France, Delta, Singapore Airlines and Philippine Airlines.
Qantas has said it is bleeding $26 million a week just standing still. Over 200 aircraft are grounded, 95% of domestic capacity and 99% of international capacity is cut. But the airline is itching to get back into the air as soon as possible.
The Australian Government is also generally keen on getting people safely moving again and pushing to ease interstate travel restrictions. With both Qantas and the government in philosophical lockstep and Qantas on the PR front foot, the days of an empty middle seat on Qantas look numbered.