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Qantas allows middle seats for repatriation, but not domestic, flights

written by Adam Thorn | May 11, 2020
Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJS landing at Sydney Airport. (Seth Jaworski)
Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJS landing at Sydney Airport. (Seth Jaworski)

Qantas has been allowing passengers to occupy the middle seat in recent international repatriation flights, despite a commitment against it for domestic travel.

On 20 April, the airline said in a statement it had introduced “formal social distancing” that meant passengers would be sat by the window or aisle. However, speaking on the ABC’s 7.30 program, chief executive Alan Joyce confirmed customers on the recent India repatriation flights did occupy the middle seat.

He also claimed the federal government, which is responsible for the charter and seating rules, were “very happy with that”. There is no legal requirement in Australia for airlines to stop people sitting in the middle seat, however, both Qantas and Virgin have decided against it for domestic services.

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Joyce also used the television interview to push for leniency when recreational domestic travel returns in July.

“We just need to get those practices that are on those charter flights into the domestic operation, which is our intent,” he said.

“Even if you take the middle seat as being empty, that’s 60 centimetres. The social distancing rules are supposed to be 1.5 metres. If you did that, you’d have very few people on an aircraft and the airfares would have to be very high.”

Last week, three Qantas flights repatriated more than 500 Australians in India, with tickets reportedly costing $2,300 and each carrying 188 passengers.

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Qantas has repeatedly cited the safety of flying despite COVID-19, claiming there have been no recorded cases of coronavirus being transmitted while onboard a flight.

In the US, Delta, Alaska and Spirit airlines have effectively blocked the middle seat, while Air New Zealand, which is preparing to ramp up domestic operations, has limited seats.

“There’s been no known transmission of COVID-19 passenger to passenger or passenger to crew, and there’s huge tracking been done on that in this country,” Joyce said.

“We have the protections of how we clean aircraft, and if we put other protections in place, we think we can make a case and to make that absolutely secure and give people confidence that it’s very safe to travel.”

Internationally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said it supports the wearing of masks for passengers, but not social distancing.

IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac has previously pointed to dramatic cost increases to air travel that would likely come about as a result of such a policy.

In comments circulated last week, de Juniac suggested that these costs outweigh the risk of transmission aboard aircraft, which the IATA ranks as low.

“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is low,” he said.

“And we will take measures — such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew — to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit.”

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9 Comments

  • Bernard

    says:

    If pax are prepared to pay more for extra space around them then let them. Wouldnt be surprised if people were willing to pay for middle seat in their ticket just to keep it empty. But expecting to cram pax in may backfire even though Qantas is saying it’s using Hepa filters. Middle seat would be used by families if allowed to, I think.

  • G.Matthew NORMAN

    says:

    Why then are you not boarding aircraft by window seats first ,then working towards aisles .& when a middle section of seats exist ,
    work first from inner seats .
    You will also board faster & save thousands of hours each week , allowing more flights & greater yields .

    But perhaps that’s too simple for the technocrats .I am sure the finance wizards will love it .
    Some airport sound systems may need upgrades & staff trained to speak more slowly & clearly , in lieu of the many who think faster talking is better .WRONG.
    PS I had over 28 years in travel & hospitality Industry plus 20 years In finance & running my own successful businesses .

  • Red Cee

    says:

    If there is minimal chance of catching Covid on a plane, why are so many airlines insisting on facial masks?

  • Geoff

    says:

    These flights were to return any and all Australian citizens from overseas in imminent danger of infection. As all passengers being repatriated were put into 14 day isolation, if any had been infected, then it would be contained, and treatment provided.
    When the virus has been reduced to a “comfortable” level, we can start travelling again. If I were Qantas, I would insist all pax , while maintaining correct social distancing, submit to a test at the airport, one hour or so prior to travel. If test comes back negative, travel, if positive, into isolation. This way, normal seating dimensions can remain.

  • AlanH

    says:

    It’s ironic that AA should use an archival photo of a 747 to head this story when they have all been grounded since the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions and the latest news indicates that the retirement of their remaining fleet of four aircraft will be brought forward and they will not now be returning to the skies. No A380 photos available?

  • John

    says:

    I would hope that the middle or any adjacent seats would at least be allocated to those from the same household.
    The same rule could also potentially be the first stage in reintroducing these seats on domestic flights.

  • Katherine Kotlaroff

    says:

    I agree with Joyce that you shouldn’t get rid of middle seats on international flights. If the aircraft are taking extra precautions, there shouldn’t be issues. I think maybe taking temps before passengers boarding or other implementations. You won’t get people travelling if you like prices up or have quarantine protocol.

  • Joseph Ladicani

    says:

    I will be ready to fly as soon as the skies open and people are released from lockdown and set free which I hope very soon.

  • Joseph Ladicani

    says:

    I will be on the first flight !

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