Fear of possible increase in local air fares and operators’ resistance to onboard physical distancing have compelled the Federal Government to reconsider an earlier directive that airlines should operate at between 50 and 70 per cent capacity.
The local operators, who had advised against the directive last week resumed with over 25 per cent hike in fares to cover operations costs, contrary to government’s promise that air fares would remain stable, even as the worse scenario was expected if the vacant middle seat directive applied.
The local airlines recently resumed commercial flight services on the Lagos-Abuja route following three months of lockdown.
Early flights recorded as much as 70 per cent capacity on Arik Air and Air Peace, among others, but Dana Air pledged to keep the middle seats vacant in the first month of commercial flights resumption.
With the traffic expected to improve this week, Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, at the weekend said the carriers were not expected to keep middle seats vacant because the cabins were safer following airlines’ compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols.
Sources at the ministry confirmed that government’s review of the directive was not unconnected with its economic impact on operators and travelers, despite that research had shown that onboard physical distancing was unnecessary.
Therefore, global airlines rejected the idea of keeping their middle seats vacant as part of measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Chairman of Air Peace airline, Allen Onyema told The Guardian that safety and security remained the priority of all operators and that efficient measures were being deployed in a manner that the new normal would not further hurt the business.
Onyema said Air Peace had devised an innovative boarding method to minimise contacts and also implement an organised boarding, with Economy Class before Business Class travelers, “which is more effective than physical distancing.
“We are totally against middle seat removal, because the middle seat cannot stop anyone from contracting COVID-19. In the first place, if you do only aisle and the window seats, it is not up to two meters. So what are we talking about?”
Findings showed that global travelers have not made up their minds about cabin air quality, while 57 per cent of travellers believed that air quality is dangerous, 55 per cent said they understood that it was as clean as the air in a hospital operating theatre.
The Chief Operating Officer of another local airline argued that the quality of air in modern aircraft was far better than most other enclosed environments.
Also, Chief Executive Officer of IATA, Alexandre de Juniac, explained that governments advise to wear face masks when social distancing was not possible, should be the case with public transportation.
De Juniac said this aligned with the experts’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) take off guidance.
“Additionally, while passengers sit in close proximity on board, the cabin air flow is from ceiling to floor. This limits the potential spread of viruses or germs backwards or forwards in the cabin,” he added.