Ashley Nunes is a research fellow at Harvard Law School. His work focuses on transportation safety, regulatory policy and work force productivity.
The pandemic isn’t even over, but the fight for more space is already on.
As of July 1, both Air Canada and WestJet have stopped blocking access to adjacent seats on their planes. Previously, these carriers had embraced “seat distancing” policies, allowing passengers to sit farther away from one other because of potential COVID-19 transmission. Not any more. Instead, Canadians can now expect the usual tight squeeze onboard.
Predictably, the move isn’t going over well. One couple, expecting an empty adjacent seat, likened the new policy to having “the rug pulled out from underneath” them. “I just thought that (the airlines) would want to take our safety more seriously,” the couple lamented to the CBC. Manitoba MP Niki Ashton shared their sentiment, calling for Ottawa to apply the same physical distancing rules that apply on land, in the air. According to Ms. Ashton, that airlines want to revert to the old ways of doing business “really speaks to (their) profit-driven agenda.”
All of this criticism misses the mark.
Let’s start with an airline’s “contract of carriage.” This document defines the rights of passengers and the responsibilities of the airline. It lays out in painstaking detail what happens if your flight is cancelled, your luggage is misplaced or you are denied boarding. What the contract of carriage doesn’t address are passenger rights when it comes to adjacent seats. The reason? You have none. In what should surprise few flyers, paying for one seat on a plane entitles you to, well, just one seat.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, carriers like Air Canada offered passengers more space by limiting seating in adjacent seats. But the move only ever applied to cases “whenever possible.” In other words, it’s courtesy, not compulsory. If an airplane can seat 100 passengers and 100 passengers show up, the airline is well within its rights to accommodate them all. There’s a lesson here for flyers: it pays to read the fine print (or at the very least, the airline’s tweets) before buying a ticket.
But you might be thinking: what about safety? Airlines have a public health responsibility, and given the pandemic, cramming people into a small metal tube isn’t safe. Well, according to the US Center for Disease Control, “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” The systems that do this (called HEPA filters) are good – so good, in fact, that they can remove nearly 99.97 per cent of airborne toxins.
Of course, none of this matters if the person besides you is sick. Filter or not, chances are you will suffer the same fate as them. That’s where physical distancing comes in. By keeping flyers 6 feet apart, contagion – we are told – will be limited. Perhaps this is true, but blocking out the middle seat alone wouldn’t achieve that. As one airline exec recently noted, “when you’re on board the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within six feet from you, the person at the window is within six feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within six feet of you, (and) the people in the row behind you are within six feet of you.”
Does an empty middle seat give passengers peace of mind? Sure. Does it make for good PR? Absolutely. Is it actually effective? It doesn’t seem like it.
There is no way to properly physically distance on an airplane – at least, not without effectively emptying out the cabin. To stop contagion, you wouldn’t need to just keep one seat free, or one row for that matter. Instead, airlines would have to clear out a few rows. By one estimate, four passengers would need 26 seats if airlines were to follow strict distancing guidelines, which is hardly the making of a viable business. And make no mistake: airlines are a business. They are required by their shareholders to pursue a “profit-driven agenda.” Doling out extra space to flyers – without getting paid for it – does little to support that agenda.
This doesn’t absolve carriers of their safety commitments. What companies like Air Canada and WestJet can, should and have done is take steps to limit transmission of COVID-19. This means scrubbing down airplanes, conducting pre-boarding temperature checks, and most importantly, requiring that passengers wear masks. To passengers who say that’s not enough, or that argue that extra space is the answer, I say this: you are more than welcome to pay for it.
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