Friday, May 08, 2020

Keeping middle seats vacant not an option for airlines to maintain social distancing, says Hardeep Singh Puri

In some relief to domestic airlines, Union aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Thursday said airlines do not have the option to keep middle seats vacant and hence, other precautionary ways will be looked at for maintaining social distancing.

Airlines already operate on very thin margins and if they have to keep 1/3rd of aircraft empty, many of them will choose not to fly, the minister said.

"Keeping the middle seat vacant has not been an option, is not an option for any airline anywhere in the world. Airlines already operate on very thin margins and if you keep 1/3rd of aircraft empty, many of them will choose not to fly.

This might be counter-productive. We need to take other precautions," Puri told CNBC-TV18.

Puri took an example of a European airline which planned to follow health protocols amid COVID-19 pandemic by using masks with high-quality filters, disinfecting aircraft and minimising risk as much as possible.

"At the end of the day, there is a risk. You can’t run an airline by keeping the middle seat vacant. I have been saying that since day 1 but whether the health authorities agree with or not..each of us has to grapple with the issues that we have to deal with," Puri added.

While the government has not yet released a post-lockdown plan for passenger flights, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had issued an advisory, just ahead of the lockdown was announced on March 23, asking airlines to keep one seat empty between two passengers for social distancing.

Recently, GoAir and SpiceJet had said that they will not keep middle seats vacant in their aircraft when operations resume and will rather implement other ways to ensure safety and hygiene.

"This whole business of keeping social distancing on a flight by keeping a seat vacant is a mere eyewash. If you look at the distance between the window seat and the aisle seat, that's less than 2 feet, so even if you leave a seat vacant that 2 feet distance is not sufficient," SpiceJet CMD Ajay Singh had told CNBC-TV18 in April 2020.

While the government is yet to release a standard operating procedure for the airlines once flights resume, domestic operators have created their own standard operating procedure which will be followed to contain the spread of COVID-19.
08/05/20 Anu Sharma/CNBC TV18
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