IATA opposes mandatory blocking of middle seats, Calls for Passenger Face Covering and Crew Masks


The International Air Transport Association (IATA)  will oppose any government proposals — mandating social distancing measures — that require airlines to keep middle seats empty during the Covid-19 pandemic, but, support the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for the crew while onboard.

IATA opposes mandatory blocking of middle seats, Calls for Passenger Face Covering and Crew Masks
IATA opposes mandatory blocking of middle seats, Calls for Passenger Face Covering and Crew Masks

The trade group argued in a statement that: “Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission onboard 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 trade group said.

IATA said an informal survey of medical contacts at 18 airlines (representing 14% of global traffic) revealed just three instances of suspected passenger-to-crew Covid-19 transmission from January through March, four instances of pilot-to-pilot transmission and zero passenger-to-passenger transmissions.

The airline lobby also said that an examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers who were confirmed to have the virus after air travel revealed no transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers on the same flights. Two possible cases were found among crew members.

IATA furthered that,  there are several potential reasons that flying could be safer than other forms of transport. For one, passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions. In addition, seats could provide a barrier to transmission. Also, airflow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread like other indoor environments, IATA said. It added that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to hospital quality.

Despite IATA’s assertion, not everyone agrees.

The World Health Organization says infected flyers can transmit a virus to people within two rows on either side of them.

Meanwhile, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed a Hong Kong-Beijing flight during which the authors believe a lone passenger transmitted the coronavirus SARS to 22 people onboard. The Washington Post provided a summary of that study in a recent story.

Along with mask requirements, IATA, however, recommended several other temporary health safety measures, including:

  •  Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travelers.
  •  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.

The trade group said the average fare for North American flights in 2019 was $202, which made the average break-even load factor 75%. If maximum load factors were reduced via a mandate on blocking middle seats, average tickets prices would have to increase to $289 to reach the break-even level.

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