Opinion: Social Distancing On Aircraft Won’t Work Long Term

Few industries have been as impacted by coronavirus as aviation. Likewise, few industries have had the spotlight put on them as the aviation industry has. Aviation is seen as both part of the problem and the solution to coronavirus. But is this fair? We want to keep flying, but we want half-empty aircraft, and prices kept fair.

Airlines bear a big burden when it comes to social distancing.  Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation.

This is posing a problem for airlines, and airline bosses are prepping us for some harsh home truths. At the forefront is everybody’s favorite new complimentary travel perk – social distancing on aircraft. We are being warned it won’t work long term and it’s best not to get used to it.

An unfair problem-solving burden is placed on airlines

Because airlines transport people and people are germy, airlines also transport infections and diseases with high efficiency. But the risk issue isn’t what happens onboard. The problem is the sick person (who probably isn’t showing any symptoms) getting on board in the first place.

Of course, if that unwell passenger doesn’t look or realize they are sick, how is the airline to know? But rather than focusing on detecting illness before boarding, people have zeroed in on the in-flight experience. Why? Because it’s easy, and it shifts the problem-solving role onto the airlines.

Suddenly, under the guise of social distancing, everyone expects space around them during a flight. It’s remarkable how everyone has very quickly got used to the empty middle seat. Social distancing is a funny thing. Everyone’s on board when it suits them, like when the seat on the plane next to theirs is left vacant. But when you want to mingle and flirt and generally be human, social distancing becomes a major brake on living.

Everyone loves the empty seat next to them in-flight. Photo: Getty Images

Social distancing will see airfares increase by 50%

Besides the psychological inconsistencies around social distancing, there are economic reasons why social distancing won’t work long term. Nowhere is this clearer than in the aviation industry. IATA estimates that if airlines continue to leave the middle seat empty, fares will go up by 50%.

And given that the risk of picking up any illness on an aircraft is low, many believe social distancing isn’t a viable on-going option for airlines. Dr Ian Hosegood, Qantas Group Medical Director, said yesterday,

“Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe.”

The empty seat next to you isn’t social distancing according to Qantas boss, Alan Joyce. Photo: Getty Images.

Speaking on Radio National this morning, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said you shouldn’t expect an empty seat next to you on your next Qantas flight.

“It (the empty middle seat) isn’t social distancing, it’s a 60-centimeter space between two people.”

While some experts suggest four meters of aircraft space per passenger, Mr Joyce notes that this would see one passenger per 22 seats and that’s clearly not feasible.

Modern jet aircraft do an excellent job of minimizing the risk of infections. We talk a lot about high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters here at Simple Flying. These hospital grade filters capture 99.97% of airborne particles and change the air in the cabin ten to twelve times an hour.

Of course, coronavirus isn’t an airborne virus. It’s spread by close contact with an infected person or from contaminated surfaces. A HEPA filter isn’t going to eradicate coronavirus off the tap in the aircraft’s bathroom. But good cleaning can.

Finally, airlines focus on cleaning aircraft properly

In the past, many airlines have been criticized for their lack of cabin cleanliness. We’ve all had a sticky armrest or tray table with the remains of meals past still there. But one positive side-effect of coronavirus is the step-up by airlines regarding cabin cleaning.

Airlines now brag about their new sanitation and disinfection processes. Of course, it is something they should have always done, but better late than never.

Airlines are getting serious about cleaning their cabins properly. Photo: Southwest Airlines.

Risk can be further minimized by wearing face masks in-flight. This is something a lot of airlines are starting to encourage, or even mandate.

From a public health perspective, airlines are pretty safe places. Certainly better than supermarkets and taxis and park benches. They are also closed and confined spaces, so never risk-free, but we know that when we buy a plane ticket. However, if we expect airlines to keep flying and expect fares to be affordable, we have to accept that social distancing on aircraft won’t work long term.