Tuesday 15 June 2021 - 1:26:09 pm

IATA calls for passenger face covering, crew masks, opposes onboard social distancing

GENEVA, 6th May, 2020 (WAM) -- The International Air Transport Association, IATA, announced on Wednesday that it supports the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board aircraft as a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to traveling by air.

However, the association noted in a statement, that it does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty.

Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low, IATA noted. "Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring," it added.

The association's Director-General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said, "The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low."

He went on to note that IATA will take measures - such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew - to add extra layers of protection. "We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit."

IATA recommends mandatory face-coverings for passengers and masks for crew as one of several actions to reduce the already low risk of contracting COVID-19 on board aircraft.

In addition to face coverings, these layers of temporary biosecurity measures being proposed include the temporary screening of passengers, airport workers and travellers, as well as boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew. Other recommended measures include limiting movement within the cabin during flight; more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning, and simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.

When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures, IATA added. It reiterated that it does not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing while onboard aircraft.

The IATA statement went on to say that evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.

An IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines identified, during January-March 2020, just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of COVID-19, all from passengers to crew. A further four episodes were reports of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot, which could have been in-flight or before and after (including layover). There were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission.

A more detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers (also during the January to March 2020 period) who were confirmed for COVID-19 after air travel revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers in the same flights. Just two possible cases were found among crew members.

There are several plausible reasons why COVID-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission, and why air travel is different from other modes of public transport, IATA continued. It noted the presence of High Efficiency Particulate Air, HEPA, filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to hospital operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation, as one such plausible reason.

"Moreover, even if mandated, keeping the ‘middle seat’ open will not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Most authorities recommend one to two metres while the average seat width is less than 50 cm," IATA added.

Calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 percent, IATA continued. "That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 percent."

With fewer seats to sell, it added, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically - between 43 percent and 54 percent depending on the region - just to cover costs.

According to IATA estimates average fares for 2019 in the Africa and Middle East region were at US$181, with a breakeven load factor of 75 percent. Should social distancing measures apply, IATA estimates a 43 percent increase in average fares, the equivalent of $259.

"Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from COVID-19’s economic devastation," said de Juniac.

IATA represents some 290 airlines comprising 82 percent of global air traffic.

WAM/Nour Salman