Social distancing at airports and on aircraft – is it really manageable?

24 April, 2020

The idea that airlines can simply leave middle seats on aircraft empty as a social distancing solution once airline demand once again takes-off is simply not an option. In fact, it never really was a viable option alone and is only ever going to be a short-term measure used by some regulators and airlines to meet health obligations and encourage people to travel, or part of a much wider onboard strategy.

While some airlines are adopting the process, Ryanair’s outspoken CEO Michael O'Leary has dismissed discussions on the topic as "nonsense" and “would have no beneficial effect whatsoever”. Never one to miss the opportunity to knock his rivals, he added: Most of them [airlines] were losing money even when you sell the middle seat".

This reduction in capacity in a post-Covid-19 world would see most aircraft’s capacity cut by around a third, something that simply would not be a sustainable option, as realistically air fares will also increase by a similar amount.

LCC Ryanair is one of the world’s most efficient operators with a low cost structure, but Mr O’Leary says it cannot be profitable based on a best load factor of 66%. If this become legislated, he says “either the government pays for the middle seat, or we won't fly". Pattee Sarasin, the former CEO and vice chairman of LCC Nok Air shares a similar view.

The fact is even if you do block the middle seat, it doesn't deliver any social distancing. The official guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) is to maintain at least one metre (three feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. Most governments have advised a physical gap of at least two metres (six feet) from any other person. The width of that empty middle seat is generally just 16 to 18 inches!

This video demonstrates the trajectory of a sneeze in an aircraft cabin with traditional airflow.

Over the last 15 years the industry’s average annual load factor has inched up from the mid-70%s to regularly exceeding 80%. But, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) says its latest projections show that by Sep-2020 international air passenger totals could drop by as many as 1.2 billion travellers.

It is true that it will take some time for demand to rise to the heights seen prior to Covid-19 and the threat of additional phases of the pandemic and even brothers, sisters and daughters that could follow will mean it could remain a continued struggle for airlines to fill aircraft. That will mean that social distancing on aircraft will be easier to deliver.

An existing solution is to offer a more flexible seat map that meets the different requirements for travellers, while supporting social distancing and aircraft weight and balance. Social distancing requirements will differ between solo travellers, couples, families, even within groups, but technology can now dynamically adjust seat offers to customers.

Farelogix has announced that multiple airline customers – including a tier one US carrier – are already using its FLX Merchandise offer engine to support in-flight social distancing. It enables airlines to modify rules, in real time, in response to fast-changing conditions or even adapt to particular origin/destination markets where there may not be a need for social distancing in the air.

The enterprise or cloud-based solution directly integrates with the airline’s technology stack or PSS. The PSS-agnostic engine enables airlines to create customised, dynamic product and service offers across multiple sales channels, including, mobile, check-in, kiosks, call centres, and travel agencies (direct or via GDS).

“With our FLX Merchandise rules engine, we have always said ‘if you can dream it, you can build a dynamic rule for it’ and once again this is proving true,” says Jim Davidson, CEO of Farelogix. “To deliver the safest travel experience amid Covid-19, our customers are adapting FLX Merchandise to support an efficient approach to enabling safe physical distancing across a variety of seat configurations, on both narrow and wide-body aircraft.”

Many believe any health concerns should be overcome before a passenger has even boarded an aircraft. The Blue Swan Daily reported last week on Emirates Airline’s rapid Covid-19 testing at Dubai International Airport ahead of a departure to Tunisia and that is a solution that is being explored between many airports and their local health authorities. Similarly, a certificate-based system like that adopted for other diseases may be the new passport for flyers.

For many, it is the airport journey that raises the most concerns for travellers health and exposure to potential virus infection. The WHO guidance on washing our hands, avoiding touching our faces and practicing respiratory hygiene should be enough to avoid contamination, but that may not be enough to lessen travellers’ fears.

While we have this current dip in passenger demand, airports have a lot to think about. Many have brought forward infrastructure projects, others are enhancing technology adoption to reduce human interactions, some have started remodelling their terminal footprint in preparation for changing passenger requirements.

Over the past month, most of us have adapted our daily lives to the ‘new normal’, whether that has been working from home or educating our own children. We have also adopted social distancing during walks or shopping trips while government mobility restrictions have been in place. Our airport and flying experience may be a little different when travel restrictions are lifted, but likewise we will also bet better prepared for change.