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EU regulators give airlines flexibility on social distancing

Travelers wearing face masks walk through the check-in area of Schipol airport in Amsterdam on May 11, 2020 | Evert Elzinha/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

New guidelines balance health with economic and logistical concerns.

By

5/21/20, 2:02 PM CET

Updated 5/21/20, 4:34 PM CET

The EU’s top regulators have emphasized the importance of social distancing at the airport and on planes — but left it up to operators to decide whether that’s feasible.

As countries across the bloc look to open up travel again, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued final joint safety guidelines late Wednesday designed to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus while flying.

The advice is likely to result in a huge variation in travel experience because of the flexibility it gives the industry to balance health with economic and logistical concerns.

In planes, for example, the guidelines state that “aeroplane operators should ensure, to the extent possible, physical distancing among passengers” but only “where allowed by the passenger load, cabin configuration and mass and balance requirements.”

“This may be achieved by leaving at least one seat empty between passengers, increasing the distance between the seats or leaving every other row empty,” it suggests.

The tourism sector and airlines in general, hard hit by the pandemic, are keen to salvage what they can of their busiest time of year between June and September.

Airlines such as Ryanair have been vocal with concerns that flying will not remain economically viable (without price hikes or government subsidies) if planes are forced to fly with middle seats empty.

The tourism sector and airlines in general, hard hit by the pandemic, are keen to salvage what they can of their busiest time of year between June and September. They argue limiting a plane to be two-thirds full will make it even harder for air travel to return.

Other airlines such as Lufthansa and TAP Air Portugal have instituted empty-row policies as a temporary measure while flights remain largely unfilled.

“The guidance is clear that while airlines should seek to maintain physical distancing where practicable, flexibility on seating arrangements is permitted,” said global airline lobby IATA in reaction to the guidelines.

An earlier version of the guidelines obtained by POLITICO did not mention leaving every other seat nor entire rows empty.

The final version also backs wearing masks while flying, allowing only passengers into terminals and not permitting people to line up in cabins to use the toilet.

Overall, the guidelines recommend that “aeroplane operators, airport operators and service providers should ensure that physical distancing of 1.5 metres is maintained wherever this is operationally feasible.”

But they discourage temperature checks at airports — which were backed by airlines — as being a “high-cost, low-efficiency measure” that would do little to identify cases.

While screening at airports has been widely adopted, some countries, including the U.K., have resisted implementing airport controls — with British Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam stating the incubation period of the virus means checks would be ineffective in preventing spread.

When it comes to the use of masks, airlines have emphasized their mandatory use as an effective measure in the absence of social distancing.

But the EU regulators say they are only a “complementary measure and not as a replacement for established preventive measures, such as physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, meticulous hand hygiene and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth.”

“We look forward to working with EASA and the ECDC to incorporate the relevant improvements” — Lobby group A4E

They also warn about the potential “false sense of security that can be given by wearing a face mask.”

Airports welcomed the guidelines. Lobby group ACI-Europe said the guidelines will allow passengers to return “to air travel with confidence.”

Given airlines’ opposition to some of the measures mentioned, airlines’ reaction was more qualified. Lobby group A4E said it welcomed the guidelines, but more work needs to be done. “We look forward to working with EASA and the ECDC to incorporate the relevant improvements,” the group said in an emailed statement.

“The next task is for airlines and airport operators to adapt the guidelines to their individual facilities and operations,” said EASA’s Executive Director Patrick Ky. “EASA and ECDC will continue to offer their expertise in this crucial phase.”

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