UPDATED: COVID-19 – IATA opposes social distancing on planes, saying airlines won’t survive

Association says air fares likely to fall initially post-pandemic, but rise as industry adapts to infection controls; trade group approves wearing of masks by crew and passengers


UPDATED: COVID-19 – IATA opposes social distancing on planes, saying airlines won’t survive

The main trade association for the global airline industry, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), says airfares will likely drop in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when borders open but could rise dramatically if governments impose social distancing guidelines on-board the aircraft to suppress any second or third-wave of the virus by eliminating the “third seat” on airplanes or otherwise changing the layouts of aircraft interiors.

A screenshot of the COVID-19 tracking site produced by Johns Hopkins University taken on 6 May. To access the live site, click on the image. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

Brian Pearce, IATA’s chief economist, said airlines will “usually drop prices to stimulate demand” following a crisis like the 9-11 terror attacks, but the COVID-19 pandemic presents special problems because of social distancing issues both on-board the aircraft and at the airport.

Download IATA presentation on air travel costs here.
Download IATA presentation on preventing virus transmission here.
Listen to the 5 May IATA media call here.

“As borders open, a lot of airlines, with 16,000-plus planes parked, will be chasing passengers” because they’ve got very expensive assets with obligations to pay and the industry will “likely see a lot of competition”, Pearce said.

IATA opposes social distancing, approves of masks

In a statement issued after IATA’s Tuesday (5 May) media call, the association came out strongly opposed to governments enforcing social distancing on airplanes, saying airlines would most likely fall below their “break-even” point if they had to remove capacity on their planes.


IATA’s Pearce said if the “middle seat removal happens it will mean that 67 percent of total seats” will be removed from sale and airlines will not be able to make money and fares would rise almost 55 percent for airlines just to break even and airlines will “really struggle to be financially viable”.

IATA said its “multilayered approach”, which includes health and temperature checks prior to boarding would help the industry and eliminate the need cutting seat capacity. IATA maintained its guidance on its earlier forecasts and said the industry stands to lose more than US$300 billion in revenue this year if the pandemic continues with overall passenger traffic down at least 50 percent.

IATA said in the later statement that it supports the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on-board aircraft but “IATA does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring”, the association said.

Alexandre de Juniac, director general of IATA.

“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO. “Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on-board aircraft is low. And we will take measures — such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew — to add extra layers of protection. 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 cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little occurrence of on-board transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not,” said de Juniac.

IATA said in addition to masks,  other layers of “temporary biosecurity measures” being proposed include:

  • Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travellers;
  • Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew;
  • Limiting movement within the cabin during flight;
  • More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning;
  • Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.
IATA Chief Economist Brian Pearce. (PHOTO: IATA)

As IATA’s Pearce said, calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 percent. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 percent. With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically — between 43 percent and 54 percent depending on the region — just to cover costs.

“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,” said de Juniac.

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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.


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