Patrick Hatch, in The Age, 8 May 2020, with this title “Masks or eye-watering fares? Airlines prepare for COVID-19 flying”
Face masks could be mandatory for passengers on all flights within Australia, but a reprieve from planes’ dreaded “middle seat” could be short-lived as airlines prepare for interstate travel restrictions to ease.
Interstate travel is allowed in the third stage of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plan to re-open the country unveiled on Friday, with states and territories to decide exactly when that will occur. Qantas and Virgin Australia and their budget arms Jetstar and Tigerair have cut their combined domestic flying to 128 return services per week underwritten by the government. For Qantas, that is around 5 per cent of its normal schedule.
But passenger demand is expected to slowly return when COVID-19 restrictions ease, raising the question of how airlines will manage the risk of COVID-19 transmission in packed aeroplanes and busy airports.
The airlines currently enforce some social distancing on domestic flights by leaving one seat empty between passengers. which has been possible because of very low passenger numbers.
However the International Air Transport Association, the global industry’s peak body, this week said leaving the “middle seat” empty on flights and reducing a plane’s maximum capacity to around 60 per cent was not financially viable for airlines.
Carriers generally need to fly with 77 per cent of their seats filled to break even and would have to increase airfares in the Asia Pacific region by 54 per cent to avoid flying at a loss, IATA said.
Air New Zealand is preparing to resume some domestic flying with aircraft that are 35 to 50 per cent empty to allow for one-metre social distancing, and has said it won’t be able to offer its normal lowest fare until social distancing measures are removed.
Qantas has made all passengers wear masks, and crew masks and gloves, conducted pre-flight temperature checks and limited interactions between crew and passengers on international repatriation flights, which have been too full to enforce social distancing.
Some of these precautions are expected to be adopted for domestic flights too, which will be up for discussion when airlines and airports meet next week.
Qantas’ medical director Dr Ian Hosegood said the airline was working with the government to design what combinations of protection to use going forward.
“It will be based on the medical facts and what our customers tell us they need to feel safe,” Dr Hosegood said.
Professor Marylouise McLaws, an epidemiologist, researcher at the University of NSW and member of the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 advisory panel, said Australians flying and using public transport in greater numbers while there were still active COVID-19 cases in the country increased the risk of the virus spreading.
“An airport terminal, boarding and alighting an airplane and sitting in an aeroplane, waiting to go the bathroom in an aeroplane increases the likelihood of ‘amplification’ just by the simple fact that you can’t keep your social distance,” she sa
Professor McLaws said universal mask use should be mandatory on flights, along with hand-washing and other precautions. However, she cautioned that medical-grade masks (which are around 95 per cent effective) should not be used by airlines at the expense of hospitals and health care workers.
Airlines including Air France, Air Canada, American Airlines and Delta are already making passengers wear masks.
Canberra Airport this week became the nation’s first airport to implement body temperature scanning for all passengers. Melbourne Airport is installing hand sanitiser units across its terminals and will keep measures in place to improve social distancing while passengers queue.
“We need to find the right balance to minimise the health risk and promote confidence without lumbering our guests and the industry with measures that degrade the passenger experience, make it less efficient or more expensive,” an airport spokesman sai
Qantas’ Dr Hosegood said data showed the risk of catching COVID-19 on a aircraft was “extremely low”, due to the air in the cabin running through hospital-grade filters every five minutes, high seat backs acting as physical shields between passengers and passengers having little few face-to-face interaction with each other.
Currently, Queensland and WA’s borders are closed except for essential travel, while travellers must go into self isolation for 14 days after entering South Australia and the Northern Territory and into quarantine for 14 days after entering Tasmania.
There are no restrictions for travel to NSW, Victoria and the ACT. However bans on visiting people’s homes and other behaviour has largely killed off demand, with just a handful of flights between Melbourne and Sydney operating daily.