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.
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.
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.”