Coronavirus: Social distancing takes flight as airlines in Asia-Pacific experiment with putting space between passengers

Danny Lee

Airlines across the Asia-Pacific region are ramping up measures to boost confidence in travel by introducing in-flight social distancing, mandatory temperature checks and requiring passengers to wear masks as Covid-19 sweeps across the globe.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Virgin Australia said they would offer passengers the option of sitting next to a vacant seat, while Air New Zealand (AirNZ) said it would force travellers to sit apart.

In the toughest measures made by airlines yet, Taiwan’s China Airlines and Eva Air said on Saturday that all travellers with a forehead temperature of over 37.5 degrees Celsius or who refused to be checked would be denied boarding. Both airlines said masks must be worn during flights and could only be taken off to consume food and drink.

Health checks have been stepped up at airports around the world. Photo: AP

Carriers have been pushed to the brink by sweeping travel restrictions designed to combat the coronavirus while worries about the safety of air travel have seen the appetite to fly collapse in a matter of weeks as the virus spreads worldwide.

While AirNZ was coy about how its social distancing would work, it appeared every passenger would get a window seat and all other seats to either side of the aisle would be blocked for sale.

Cam Wallace, AirNZ’s chief revenue officer, shed more light on the plans in a tweet: “The team are working on amending seat maps and implementing restrictions on sales for flights to allow distancing. This will remove significant seat capacity, especially on regional services.”

“Air New Zealand is adapting its processes and systems to manage seating on board the aircraft to allow for customers to be spaced out where appropriate,” a company spokeswoman said. The airline said it would also take steps to prevent airfares from being artificially hiked by algorithms thinking flights were busy.

Hong Kong’s battered flag carrier on Friday said it would cut nearly all of its flights – operating just 4 per cent of its schedule in April and May, or 45 passenger flights a week to 15 destinations.

In February, Cathay’s planes were on average 53 per cent full, but its flights last week from London – including nine extra services – were fully booked with Hongkongers fleeing from Britain’s worsening coronavirus situation, a situation in which distancing would only have been possible by turning away passengers.

Mainland carriers have also said in the past month they would encourage social distancing in-flight though stopped short of making absolute commitments.

Airlines including Cathay Pacific have rolled out a range of measures in recent weeks to reassure customers including intensifying disinfection of aircraft after landing, making cabin crews don gloves and masks, removing blankets, magazines and pillows, and adding safeguards to the in-flight food and drink service.

Major Korean carriers, meanwhile, began testing passengers for temperature at the start of the month, denying boarding to those deemed unfit to fly.

With bailouts for the aviation industry looming, more companies on Friday and into the weekend piled on bad news.

United Airlines said it would virtually stop flying internationally as it warned of major job cuts if it did not receive “sufficient government support by the end of March”.

Delta Air Lines laid bare the cost of the crisis in a regulatory filing. It said it anticipated second-quarter revenues would be down US$10 billion year-on-year, an 80 per cent reduction.

In a bid to win a government bailout worth about US$60 billion, Boeing announced its chairman and CEO would forgo a salary until year’s end, while it suspended its dividend and share buy-backs.

The UK’s largest airline, easyJet, on Friday said it would ground most its 325-strong fleet of planes by next Tuesday as a widening dispute with the bulk of its staff over cost-cutting raged on.

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