How effective is an empty middle seat in reducing the risk of air travel?

The airline industry remains divided about the wisdom of social distancing on planes

HONG KONG, CHINA - JUNE 5:  A Chinese passenger sleeps on a nearly empty flight from Hong Kong to Beijing June 5, 2003 in Hong Kong, China.  Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has had a devastating effect on China's economy.  (Photo by Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images)
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An airline in the US has come under fire for planning to charge passengers for sitting next to an empty seat.

As restrictions on air travel have slowly started to ease, several airlines around the world have introduced enhanced safety and social-distancing measures. As part of efforts to minimise contact between passengers and crew, many have started blocking the middle seats in their cabins.

Passengers from an Emirates Airlines flight from London line up before being checked by health workers at Dubai International Airport on May 8, 2020 amid the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.

   / AFP / Karim SAHIB

US airline Frontier decided to capitalise on this practice by charging customers at least $39 (Dh143) for a “More Room” seat that guaranteed they would not be sitting next to anyone else. But the airline was forced to make an abrupt U-turn after receiving criticism from lawmakers.

Frontier's decision to charge passengers to keep middle seats empty is capitalising on fear

"Frontier's decision to charge passengers to keep middle seats empty is capitalising on fear and passengers' well-founded concerns for their health and safety," was the response from Congressman Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The “middle seat” has become a source of controversy in recent weeks. A video that has emerged on social media, showing passengers on a Middle East Airlines flight complaining about a lack of social distancing on the plane, shows how heated the debate can get.

Emirates has introduced social distancing on all its flights, with seats pre-allocated in observance of social-distancing protocols. The airline has also modified its in-flight services, offering food and drinks in pre-packed boxes and removing all magazines and print material from its aircraft.

Over at Ryanair, meanwhile, the airline’s ever controversial chief executive Michael O'Leary has dubbed the idea “idiotic”, pointing to the financial implications of having aircraft routinely flying at a substantially reduced capacity. US airline Delta and Japan Air have both blocked all middle seats in their cabins until the end of June. And while EasyJet has grounded all flights, the airline's Johan Lundgren has confirmed that it is considering keeping all middle seats free once flights resume. "That is something we will do because I think that is something the customers would like to see,” he says.

epa08397422 EasyJet aircraft are parked at Luton Airport, in Britain, 02 May 2020.  Due to the coronavirus number UK daily flights has fallen and in some routes have been suspended. British Airways' parent company IAG announced it is set to cut up to 12,000 positions. EasyJet has laid off its 4,000 UK-based cabin crew for two months. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease.  EPA/NEIL HALL

These are sentiments echoed, in softer terms, by the International Air Transport Association, which said in an official statement last week that it does not support mandated social-distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty.

“Even if mandated, keeping the middle seat open will not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective,” IATA said. “Most authorities recommend one to two metres, while the average seat width is less than 50 centimetres.”

Instead, it recommended face coverings for passengers and crew; boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew; limited movement within the cabin during flights; more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and simplified catering procedures.

The organisation pointed to evidence that suggests that the risk of transmission of the coronavirus on board aircraft is already low. An IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines conducted between January and March identified only three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of Covid-19, all from passengers to crew.

IATA maintains that slashing the maximum load factors of planes is unsustainable in the long run, and will herald the end of an era of affordable travel. According to IATA estimates, average fares for 2019 in the Africa and Middle East region were at $181, with a break-even load factor of 75 per cent. Should social-distancing measures apply, IATA estimates a 43 per cent increase in average fares, to the equivalent of $259.

We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable

"Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from Covid-19’s economic devastation," says IATA’s director general and chief executive, Alexandre de Juniac de Juniac.

"We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit,” the statement concluded.