Social-distance flying, the new normal?

Michael O’Leary is against it. “If they do that, we’re not returning to flying at all,” the Ryanair chief executive recently announced defiantly.
Social-distance flying, the new normal?
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There is already an intense discussion on how passenger air travel can be resumed once the sweeping restrictions to contain the coronavirus are lifted. One of the key questions is: should middle seats on aircraft be left vacant?
“The middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t deliver anything anyway,” O’Leary told the Financial Times. If such a regulation were to be imposed by Ryanair’s home country, Ireland, then “either the government pays for the middle seat or we won’t fly.” One thing seems to be clear: There is no easy return to the world as we knew it in aviation before the coronavirus, likely none at all. This threatens the business model of an airline like Ryanair, which is known to squeeze in as many passengers as possible and keeps its aircraft on the ground for only short turnarounds before sending them up again, allowing it to fly more than others.
This model might be fundamentally thrown into doubt with the now required regular, thorough cleaning of aircraft and lengthier boarding procedures to keep passengers apart from each other, which would inevitably increase ground times.
So far, there’s been no evidence of any infections on board aircraft. The aviation industry keeps stressing that cabin air is at least as clean as the air in operation theatres, thanks to high-performance air particle filters.
The risks are further mitigated by the cabin air streaming downward. It hasn’t also been proven that vacant middle seats lower the risk of infection. Still, many airlines like Lufthansa Group, including Eurowings, currently block middle seats. Likewise, easyJet is promising travel without a direct seat neighbour at least initially once it restarts operations.
“It’s purely a cosmetic measure and there is no scientific justification that it would help,” says Shashank Nigam, CEO of aviation consultancy Simpliflying. But psychology does play a role currently. “We will continue to enable a safe travel experience that has to become visible for the passenger to build up trust,” promises Ingo Wuggetzer, vice president of Cabin Marketing at Airbus.
Simpliflying paints a sobering picture of how air travel might look like in the age of sanitised travel.
“The changes will be as far-reaching, if not more so, than the ones introduced after 9/11, and will be here with us to stay,” claims Nigam.
“In addition to security checks, you will have a sanitation element added on top.” In a recent report, Simpliflying says a journey by air will roughly look somewhat like this: As part of the online check-in process, passengers will be required to upload an immunity passport confirming the presence of antibodies for COVID- 19. At the airport itself, travelers will be required to arrive at least four hours before departure.
Even before passengers can enter the actual check-in area, they will have to pass through a disinfection tunnel and thermal scanners. A newly founded Transport Health Authority, similar to the TSA created in the US after 9/11, could define standards in cooperation with the World Health Organization and airport and airline groups.
Christoph Muller, an airline veteran and former CEO of Aer Lingus and Malaysia Airlines, among others, says, “We need a kind of safety net, there’s nothing worse than people not getting on board for fear of getting infected.”
— The writer is a reporter with Deutsche Welle

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