When the virus-struck airlines are fighting for their survival amid a severe financial crisis, mandating onboard social distancing for resuming flight operations will take the situation from bad to worse, possibly also ending the era of affordable air travel.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) on Sunday issued its guidelines including a directive for keeping at least one-seat gap between two passengers on a flight to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.
The CAAB directed operators to keep at least 25 percent of seats on a passenger flight vacant to ensure social distancing. Moreover, either the first or the last row of the seats will remain vacant for coronavirus-suspect passengers.
Restricting the use of seats between passengers will bring down passenger load factor to less than 50 percent, making it impossible for operators to manage flight operation costs, said Md Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman Bangladesh Airlines.
Domestic air travels will be expensive as the operators will cut their flight frequencies on domestic routes due to losses, and will raise airfares too, he said.
Biman is also planning to cut its domestic flights substantially after resuming flight operations, he added.
It is likely to operate flights on only Sylhet and Chittagong out of its seven local routes, he said.
Other local airlines that run domestic-flight based operations will be affected the most as they use small aircraft on domestic routes. Leaving 25 percent of seats vacant will significantly reduce their carrying capacity, said industry insiders.
For instance, US-Bangla, the largest local private airline, operates ATR 72-600 with a capacity of carrying maximum 68-78 passengers. If 25 percent of the seats are kept vacant, its carrying capacity will drop to around 30 percent which will not be viable for continuing its business, said a senior executive of the carrier.
Another segment which will be adversely affected by this decision is Bangladeshi expatriate workers as airfares will rise steeply on international routes as well, said industry experts.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) strongly opposed social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty, saying that it would raise travel costs drastically.
"Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines cannot recoup the costs in higher fares, they will go bust," said the IATA in a press release issued recently.
Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from Covid-19's economic devastation.
The IATA said calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 percent. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 percent.
With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, airfares would need to go up dramatically – between 43 percent and 54 percent depending on the region – just to cover costs.
The IATA supports the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board.
Giving logic to its disagreement with mandating seat elimination on board, IATA said evidence – although limited – suggests that the risk of virus transmission on aircraft is low even without special measures.
Citing instances, it said contact tracing for a flight from China to Canada with a symptomatic Covid-19 passenger revealed no onboard transmission.
Contact tracing for a flight between China and the US with 12 symptomatic Covid-19 passengers also revealed no onboard transmission.
Communication with IATA member airlines indicates similar results.
An IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines identified, during January-March 2020, just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of Covid-19, all from passengers to crew. A further four episodes were reports of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot, which could have been in-flight or before/after (including layover). There were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission.
A more detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers (also during the January to March 2020 period) who were confirmed for Covid-19 after air travel revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers in the same flights. Just two possible cases were found among crew members.
The IATA recommends mandatory face-coverings for passengers and masks for crew as one of several actions to reduce the already low risk of contracting Covid-19 on aircraft.
Meanwhile, airline executives are seeing a return of the aviation industry to the 1980s when there was only one carrier because of the pandemic.
Sikder Mezbahuddin Ahmed, chief executive officer of US-Bangla said, "Private airlines will not survive after the pandemic if they do not get special support from the government.
The arrival of more private airlines and competition in the market made air ticket prices affordable for middle-class people, he added.
Before Covid-19, US-Bangla was planning to increase flight frequencies on domestic routes to 35 per day, from the existing 26.
US-Bangla experienced 10 percent growth in domestic air travellers in the last two years. Last year, it carried 20 lakh passengers on domestic routes.
What are in the guidelines?
All staff in the check-in counters will wear standard masks, gloves and disposable caps while processing passengers.
Passengers will be queued up with a standard social distancing gap in front of check-in counters and their body temperature will be measured. Filling a health-declaration form will be mandatory for passengers at airports.
Operators will ensure that passengers are keeping at least one-metre distance from one another while boarding buses that carry them to airports.
Cabin crew will avoid close contact with passengers and only provide necessary in-flight services. The operators will not serve food and drinks for flights lasting less than one and half hours.
For medium and long-haul flights, a normal meal should be served to air travellers. All types of baby foods are exempted from restrictions.
In case any sick passengers are found with Covid-19 symptoms, crew members should immediately contact destination airports and hand them over after landing in cooperation with local authorities.
Flight crew will wear surgical masks or masks of higher standard and caps. Cabin crew will wear N95 or equivalent protection facial masks, goggles, disposable rubber gloves and change facial masks every four hours.
The guidelines are applicable for all passenger flights after they resume operations which would remain suspended until May 16.
All operators have been asked to prepare their guidelines as per the CAAB's directive and take approval from the authorities to ensure an acceptable level of safety is maintained at all times.