Must I Wear PPE Kit on the Middle Seat? We Asked an Airline Expert

Middle seat should be empty or not? Is aircraft air-conditioning safe? Ex AirIndia Official answers these questions.

Published06 Jun 2020, 10:55 AM IST
India
4 min read

Video Editors: Ashutosh Bhardwaj & Varun Sharma

While several people have undertaken air travel since domestic flights resumed during Lockdown 4.0, there are many who are still in a dilemma.

The Quint spoke to the former executive director of Air India, Jitender Bhargava to get answers to some of the questions that passengers are still struggling with. For instance - should middle seats be kept empty or not? Is aircraft air-conditioning safe? Is flying risky at the moment?

Is the air-conditioning of an aircraft safe?

IATA ( International Air Transport Association) which is the representative body of over 200 Airlines, has categorically stated there is no fear of spread of coronavirus on flights. All passengers face one direction and not each other. Also, they will be asked to wear a mask. The high backs of the seats are also a useful barrier. The air conditioning system of the aircraft is such that air comes from the top of the aircraft, goes to the floor and then leaves the aircraft. It is not re-circulated. Air from the atmosphere is taken in every 2 minutes, freshened and then released into the cabin.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for middle-seat passengers, is that safe enough?

No airline would like to a situation where 1/3rd of the seats cannot be sold. If middle seats are left vacant, airlines will lose revenue. DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation) has suggested that if the middle seat has to be occupied, protective gear could be given to passengers. Now the question is, would passengers like to wear protective gear? Not all, probably. The airlines must tell a passenger at the time of booking that 66% tickets on the flight are taken, so he may get a middle seat and therefore would have to wear protective gear on the flight. Airlines have to ensure that they do not run into complaints from passengers occupying middle seats. The cost of the inconvenience could be given to the passenger by way of a discount.

Does vacant middle seat = social distancing?

The gap between two seats is 32 inches, which does not meet the norm of social distancing. It will keep people from touching each other. The 20 odd cases that we have seen in the past one week, did they really get infected on board an aircarft, or did they carry infection before they boarded, these are questions in the realm of speculation. But leaving the middle seat vacant over a long period of time will have a very very negative impact on the financial condition of the airlines.

Did government resume flights under pressure?

I don’t think we need a genius to say that private airlines pressurised the government. The terms and conditions of Lockdown 4.0 made it clear there would be no domestic or international flights. But within 4 days they brought in an amendment that domestic air travel would start. When you look at all these things, it indicates that there was an external pressure on the Ministry of Civil Aviation to resume flights at the earliest.

What is your opinion on guidelines issued by Aviation Ministry?

SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) by the Aviation Ministry was put together in detail. In my opinion a detailed analysis can be done, not necessarily by the Ministry of Civil Aviation as it is an interested party. But the Health Ministry could do it and say what we lack and what is sufficient.

What is the immediate future for air travel?

All travel portals indicate that bulk of the tickets sold were one way tickets from metro cities to non metro cities. More than one-third of the seats on flights have gone unsold. Clearly indicating, that people are not keen on travelling at this juncture. The coronavirus fear is genuine and demand destruction is responsible for it. When economic activities kickstart then you will have people travelling on flights. If the number of passengers in United States is 20 for an aircraft, there is no reason why India should be booking 50% or more. Airlines could shrink their network and reduce frequency. If you give airlines a free hand to deploy as much capacity as they want to, then a mad scramble to garner market share at the expense of profitability will start. And this could bankrupt airlines that do not have deep pockets and cash reserves.

Raising price of aviation fuel, right or wrong?

We must remember that oil prices are global in character. It is not that the Indian government jacks it up. Now that economic activities are reviving, oil prices have also gone up. ATF (Aviation Turbine Fuel) price has seen a big hike in the last fortnight. But I must clarify that the present ATF cost is significantly lower than what it was six months ago. So the airlines must ensure that they budget the increase in ATF price into airfare. I don’t think ATF price increase will be a major hurdle for airlines industry.

To expect the government to subsidise it is not feasible. If the government subsidises air travel, then why shouldn’t it subsidise those who travel by car or two wheelers?

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