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An employee of Qatar Aviation Services sanitizes passenger seats inside an aircraft at Hamad International Airport in Doha on April 1, 2020.

KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

The body representing global airlines came out in favour of passengers wearing masks onboard on Tuesday, as debate intensifies over how to get airlines flying while respecting physical-distancing rules after the novel coronavirus crisis.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) told reporters that wearing masks would help protect passenger health but came out against leaving middle seats empty on aircraft, a measure it had previously said was likely.

European flights have all but come to a standstill during the coronavirus pandemic. While there is no visibility on when travel restrictions will ease, airlines are considering how to safely restart services and give passengers confidence to fly.

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Months without revenues is threatening to force some airlines out of business.

Britain’s Virgin Atlantic said earlier on Tuesday that it would cut 3,150 jobs as it battles to survive, adding to the up to 12,000 jobs British Airways said last week it could shed and putting pressure on regulators to agree rules to help a quick restart when the health conditions allow.

IATA said it was working with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations aviation agency, governments and the World Health Organization on new rules which would apply internationally.

ICAO could make an announcement on mandatory face masks on flights and other measures in June, IATA director-general Alexandre de Juniac said at an online news conference.

MIDDLE SEAT U-TURN

In April, Mr. de Juniac had said leaving the middle seat empty was among the likely conditions for a resumption of air travel to be discussed with governments around the world.

But Brian Pearce, chief economist at IATA, told the news conference on Tuesday that most airlines would have been unable to make money last year if a third of the seats had been removed on the industry’s most-flown models.

Mr. de Juniac denied that IATA had changed its stance because of the damage flying two-thirds full would do to airline profitability.

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“The point is to see whether it is necessary to implement measures,” Mr. de Juniac said.

The switch away from leaving the middle seat empty was based on scientific evidence, IATA’s medical advisor David Powell said.

“Nobody has demonstrated that having the middle seat empty reduces the chance of transmitting COVID-19 from one person to another,” he said.

IATA would instead be recommending wearing masks and face coverings onboard as part of a range of measures including screening passengers before flying to make sure they did not have a fever, plus enhanced cleaning procedures and limited movement in the cabin, as the basis for restarting flying safely.

Airlines such as Germany’s Lufthansa and Hungary’s low cost Wizz Air have already made it compulsory for passengers to wear face masks on flights.

Medical advisor Mr. Powell also said the recycled air that is circulated on passenger jets was not a cause for concern because in modern jets it was treated by the same sort of filter used in operating theatres.

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