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Reuters

WestJet Airlines and Air Canada are set to resume selling middle seats on aircraft, ending a health and safety measure enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. said on Friday adjacent seats on domestic flights will no longer be blocked off beginning on July 1, citing recommendations by the International Air Transport Association, a global airline group, that says masks, passenger temperature checks and air filters are better – and less costly – ways to prevent the spread of the virus. The Calgary-based carrier will begin filling adjacent seats on international flights in August, said Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman.

Air Canada’s policy of blocking off the adjacent seat in economy class also ends on July 1, as the airlines look to recover from a collapse in air travel that has cost thousands of jobs and threatened the survival of many of the world’s carriers.

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“Air Canada’s adjacent seat policy was intended as a temporary measure and we will be replacing it with a new, flexible approach beginning July 1 as part of a further refinement of our extensive biosafety programs,” said Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman.

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To make a profit, airlines need to fill most of an aircraft’s seats. Airlines say they spent millions of dollars on new procedures to ensure planes are sanitized and customers and employees are protected.

Canada’s airlines, hotels and tourism companies have launched a publicity campaign calling for the loosening of travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines at the start of what looks like a bleak summer for the travel industry.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week travel restrictions, including the closed border with the United States, are needed to protect Canadians from the virus. “We know that reopening too quickly or carelessly would lead us to a resurgence that might well force us to go back into lockdown, to shut down the economy once again, and nobody wants that,” he said.

Transport Canada has recommended airlines implement COVID-19 prevention procedures that are consistent with the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada, including providing employees with masks, and that customers don face coverings when a physical distance of two metres cannot be maintained. Seat spacing is up to the airlines. Airlines “should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing,” Transport Canada says in its guidance for the aviation industry. “However, this is not mandatory, as other considerations such as aircraft configuration, passenger needs, and aviation safety must be taken into account when spacing passengers aboard an aircraft,” said Annie Joannette, a Transport Canada spokeswoman.

The U.S., much of Europe and parts of Canada are off-limits to holiday travellers, or require two-week isolation periods on arrival or return.

WestJet and Air Canada have launched a small number of summer routes, emphasizing enhanced aircraft cleaning, reduced in-flight services to limit personal contacts and the installation of high-efficiency air filters.

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“Safety is at the forefront of every decision we make, and as our industry adapts to a new normal, we will continue to adjust our health measures to ensure the safest travel experience,” WestJet said in a statement.

Too many empty seats make a flight a money-loser, the IATA said, as physical distancing reduces load factors to 62 per cent, well below the industry’s break-even level of 77-per-cent full. Fares would have to rise by as much as 54 per cent for a carrier to break even, if airlines were forces to block off adjacent seats, IATA said.

IATA says it does not support leaving alternating seats empty because it says the risks of COVID-19 transmission on a plane are small, because of factors that include forward-facing seats that prevent face-to-face contact, and ceiling-to-floor air flows that limit the circulation of respiratory droplets.

American Airlines said it will resume seating passengers next to each other on July 1. Rivals Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines will block some seats through September.

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