'It's not practical': Qantas says no to leaving middle seats on planes empty

In-flight social distancing would make airfares ‘eight or nine times more’ expensive, says the Australian airline

Qantas will give passengers face masks and enhance sanitisation procedures as part of its Fly Well programme, but it will not leave middle seats empty or make wearing masks mandatory. Courtesy Qantas
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Qantas is ready to give passengers face masks on all flights, but will not follow other airlines in leaving empty middle seats between travellers. 

The Australian airline will also ask travellers to limit how much they move around in the cabin and will use staggered boarding and disembarkation methods to reduce queuing as part of its new Fly Well programme designed to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

The airline's new Fly Well programme introduces increased sanitisation measures pre-flight and in the air

Along with not leaving seats vacant, the airline will not make wearing face masks mandatory.

According to Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, social distancing on an aircraft is not practical. “Taking the middle seat out only gives you a 60-centimetre gap between passengers,” said Joyce on Monday, May 18.

"Social distancing on an aircraft isn't practical the way it is on the ground."

 He said that to apply recommended social distancing measures in place on the ground, each jet would only be able to accommodate a handful of passengers. This would mean “airfares would be eight or nine times more than they are today”, said Joyce. 

Ian Hosegood, Qantas group medical director, also said: “Social distancing on an aircraft is not practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we do not believe it is necessary in order to be safe.” 

The airline announced its Fly Well programme will be introduced on all Qantas flights by Friday, June 12. Pre-flight measures include contactless check-in and bag drop, hand sanitising stations at all departure gates and increased disinfection and physical distancing at all Qantas Lounges.

On board, the airline strongly recommends that passengers wear face masks. Crew will also distribute sanitising wipes for cleaning seat belts, trays and armrests. Once in the air, travellers are asked to limit the number of times they get up from their seat and the airline will reduce its in-flight catering service.

In-air social distancing will increase flight prices

Several other companies have said they will leave the middle seat empty on flights to allow the recommended distance between people in the air.

Delta plans to introduce additional flights in order to allow for on-board social distancing, Reuters reported on Tuesday, May 19.

Emirates and Eithad Airways are also set to implement social distancing on flights where possible and have cancelled online check-in options that give travellers the chance to select their own seat. This allows the airlines to determine where people will sit for best adherence to rules.

Qantas says leaving the middle seat vacant on flights will make airfares rise to eight or nine times the current prices. Qantas 

Joyce also spoke of the economic challenge facing the aviation and tourism sector, and advised low prices would be needed to reinvigorate the industry, something that will not be possible if empty middle seats are required on flights. 

The International Air Transport Association has said airlines will not be able to make a profit if they limit aircraft to two-thirds of their normal capacity, unless they drastically increased fares.