Ryanair Boss Says Airline Won’t Operate With Social Distancing Rules

Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, claims that the airline will not start flying again if forced to leave the middle seat empty. This is an idea that has gained widespread adoption recently. It is far from clear whether it will work, or be forced on airlines, but it certainly will not fit with Ryanair’s operating model.

Ryanair, Ghost Flights, Empty Flights
Ryanair’s CEO has rejected the idea of blocking the middle seat. Photo: Getty Images

Won’t work for Ryanair

Consideration of social distancing on flights has increased rapidly recently amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Several airlines are implementing it in some way already (including Delta Air Lines and American Airlines), and many others are looking at it as they make plans once they re-start flights.

European budget airline Ryanair is the latest to offer an opinion, and it’s quite different from other airlines. In an interview with the Financial Times on April 22nd, and reported by The Guardian, chief executive Michael O’Leary explains how Ryanair’s business model requires high loads, and how it would not return to flying if forced to carry fewer passengers. He said,

“We can’t make money on 66 percent load factors. Even if you do that, the middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway,”

Ryanair CEO
Ryanair’s CEO is known for being outspoken. Photo: Getty Images

Aviation slow to rebound – but Ryanair does not agree

Other airlines, however, do support social distancing. Rival budget airline easyJet confirmed last week that it plans to leave all middle seats empty when it returns to flying. CEO Johan Lundgren explained his view to The Guardian,

“Our assumption is that load factors will not be back to normal early on, which means that we will have the opportunity for a middle-seat option, but I’m talking about this as an initial phase and nobody knows for how long that phase will be.”

These views for a slow return to aviation are shared by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In a recent look at aviation’s recovery from the crisis, IATA explained its view that the ‘U shaped’ recovery would likely mean that international demand would not recover to 80% of its pre-crisis level until 2024.

easyJet supports the view that aviation will be slow to rebound. Photo: Getty Images

Ryanair, however, is more optimistic than this. O’Leary believes that passenger loads will rise much faster once flights resume. He is expecting to operate 40% of flights in July (if travel resumes), with loads of 50% to 60%. And by summer 2021, he expects to exceed 2019 traffic levels, with growth including pick up from other airlines that fail.

Will social distancing make any difference?

At the heart of the argument is the problem of whether social distancing will make a difference on flights. Logic would suggest that it would (as it is doing in daily life), but we are far from knowing this for sure.

Inside a ryanair plane
Ryanair wants to keep the cabin full but may support other ideas. Photo: Marco Verch via Flickr

IATA believes that it will, and in a recent statement, IATA Director General de Juniac explained how this could mark the end of cheap flights as airlines are forced to raise prices.

There are plenty of other discussions on this too. UK blog, Head for Points, looked at this in a recent article based on studies following SARS in 2003. Some evidence pointed towards greater transmission range than expected (up to seven rows away). But other analysis suggests minimal problems on aircraft as most flights saw no transmission.

And as for Ryanair, Michael O’Leary is supportive of some other ideas. While he says that he will only leave the middle seat empty if the Irish government pays for it, he suggested other methods such as wearing face masks and taking temperature checks could be considered.

Simple Flying contacted Ryanair for comment but had not received a response by the time of publication.