However, an EU source told The Sunday Times that the new rules are likely to be based on a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) report, and less stringent than the speculation. “Where social distancing is not possible, the use of face masks should be considered as an alternative,” says the EASA bulletin, titled “Coronavirus ‘SARS-CoV-2’ Infections — Operational Recommendations”.
In the meantime, some airlines have introduced their own solutions. The Chinese domestic carrier Air Changan is allowing each passenger to buy eight extra seats — and thus occupy three socially distanced rows — for £180. Easyjet has said that it would take middle seats off sale, but Wizz Air, which relaunched flights from Luton on Friday, appears to have changed its mind about doing likewise. [That means immense carbon emissions per passenger, with largely empty planes].
Airlines for Europe — an industry group with members including Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and BA’s parent, IAG — told the EU last week that “social distancing is neither necessary nor viable on board an aircraft”. [Well, it certainly is not viable, if they want ticket prices to be low, AND the airline to make a profit.]
It’s not surprising that airlines hate the idea. Giving passengers more space reduces load factors and lowers margins. The provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and retrofitting of protective screens to increase passenger confidence costs money, and enhanced cleaning regimens and modified boarding practices will raise operational costs.
Carriers acknowledge that passengers need to feel safe. “Passenger confidence will suffer a double whammy even after the pandemic is contained — hit by personal economic concerns in the face of a looming recession on top of lingering concerns about the safety of travel,” warned Alexandre de Juniac, Iata’s chief executive.
However, health fears aren’t the only problem. Air travel was going out of fashion before coronavirus and, since lockdown, passenger trust has been seriously eroded by airlines’ refusals to offer refunds. Customers from the 4.5m cancelled flights up to June 30 have been issued with credit notes valid for up to two years, and many have grave concerns.
Paul Earnshaw, from Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, received travel credits from United Airlines after flights to Florida were cancelled at Easter. “Who knows if the credit note will cover the increased cost of flights in 2021?” he said. “Or if United will even exist? I’m raising a Section 75 refund request with my card company and I’ll never fly with them again.”
Rob Burgess, the editor of the frequent-flyer website headforpoints.com, believes that “the public will forgive anything if the price is right”, but that, for at least a year, airlines need to make all tickets flexible, allowing cancellations and cash refunds or government-backed credit notes. “Unless this is in place, I think people are going to be very wary of booking more than a couple of weeks ahead,” he says.
Despite almost universal pessimism across the aviation industry, there are signs of recovery. Data from the aviation analyst Cirium shows that domestic capacity in China has grown from 71% down on the same period in 2019 on February 24 to 33% down on April 22, suggesting that the public may not be so reluctant to return to the skies.
When long-haul flights from the UK are relaunched, expect airfares to be higher. As Burgess notes, “business class provides the bulk of revenue on long haul”, but withered budgets and the proven viability of video conferencing will push companies to reassess the need for travel.
“If corporate travel decreases, airlines will need to increase yields in other areas to compensate,” the travel company Trailfinders says. Add reduced choice in the market and the increased cost of post-Covid-19 operation, and those “cheap seats” may no longer be so affordable.
‘Four-hour wait to board flights’ after coronavirus pandemic
By Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent
Thursday April 30 2020, (The Times)
Air passengers could face four-hour waits to board planes, inflated ticket prices and a dramatically reduced schedule in the future, analysts have said.
The flight experience would be “very uncomfortable” after lockdown, with pre-pandemic levels of service unlikely for up to five years, they predicted.
It is widely expected that some form of health screening will be demanded before and after passengers fly to prevent a second wave of the virus.
One expert said that four-hour waits before departures could be expected, up from one or two now, as medical tests were added to the normal pre-flight ritual of check-in, security, passport control and boarding.
It is also likely that social distancing will be maintained on aircraft, with warnings that as few as 20% of seats may be filled to keep passengers at least two metres apart.
Another analyst said that budget airlines typically had to fill at least 80% of seats to break even, so passengers could expect a big increase in prices. Unprofitable routes will be abolished.
The news came as Wizz Air said that passengers would be required to wear facemasks when it becomes the first airline to resume commercial flights out of Britain tomorrow. In-flight magazines will be removed. It will operate 15 routes from Luton airport to destinations including Budapest, Lisbon and Tenerife.
Lufthansa, the German carrier and Europe’s biggest airline, said that all passengers would have to wear a mask or scarf covering their noses and mouths on planes and in airports from Monday.
Air travel has been almost stopped by the coronavirus pandemic, with the Foreign Office advising against all but essential flights. Latest figures from Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates air traffic across the Continent, show that flights in and out of Britain on Tuesday were 91 per cent lower than the same day last year.
Airlines are facing an unprecedented fight for survival. Virgin Atlantic is seeking a £500 million government loan amid warnings that it could go bust. British Airways announced that up to 12,000 staff, a quarter of its workforce, could be made redundant.
As carriers emerge from the crisis, it is likely that the travel landscape will be changed in terms of cost, route availability, the number of airlines and the flight experience. Ministers are considering a compulsory two-week quarantine for anyone entering the country.
Andrew Charlton, managing director of the consultancy Aviation Advocacy, said that compulsory pre-flight health checks would also be the norm, even if they doubled waiting times at airports.
“Even if it starts raining vaccines tonight, we are still looking at two years at least to get back to levels seen before the outbreak, and it is probably going to be more like five years,” he told The Times. “There will be fewer flights, fewer seats available, prices will go up and there will be very uncomfortable conditions because of the demands to wear personal protective equipment and maintain social distancing.
“Whereas we used to be able to turn up at the airport an hour or two before departure, we could see something as horrible as four hours as health checks are added to the usual palaver of check-in, security and immigration.”
It has been suggested that passenger numbers would be cut by a third to maintain social distancing on aircraft, with the middle seat being left empty in each row of three.
However, the airline analyst Chris Tarry said that maintaining a two-metre gap would require airlines to leave up to 80 per cent of seats empty, adding: “The maximum compliant load factor would be between 20 and 25 per cent, given current cabin densities and the seat pitch. This would act to regulate the number of passengers per flight.”
Paul Zalkin, a partner at the business advisory firm Quantuma, said: “Budget airlines operate at a break-even load factor well in excess of 80 per cent, so taking out all middle seats will not work, unless all the window and aisle seat passengers subsidise the empty middle seats. That would mean much higher ticket prices.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said that the government had to step in to “help this industry survive”. He added: “The risk is they’re wedded to a historic mindset where the market wins out and there is a limit to what ministers can do. In a way we’re a victim of our own success; open skies and the liberalisation of air travel has been great for consumers and we’ve got more airlines operating than ever before. But there comes a point where you have to protect UK interests.”