After the government changed its advice against all but essential foreign travel last month I joined some of the first passengers to board a flight in almost four months.
As flight attendants herded us post-lockdown travel guinea pigs on to the Ryanair plane to Mallorca from Manchester airport in early July, there was a palpable sense of relief amongst passengers when it became apparent that the flight would not be busy.
But despite there being row upon row of completely empty seats, we found ourselves sat right next to complete strangers. This was the closest, physically, I had been to someone outside of my household in months.
Without any hope of maintaining social distance, a few bemused passengers, including myself, queried our seating arrangements with the sympathetic flight attendants. The response? That unless we had paid for a reservation then we had been placed in seats at random.
One can only assume, therefore, that to absolutely ensure a socially distanced flight, Ryanair passengers must pay extra (between £3 and £7 each way for my flights).
With worldwide government warnings that maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre, if not more, from each other was absolutely essential to avoid transmission of coronavirus, it seemed rather surprising that the airline did not allocate seats further apart. Especially on a partially empty flight.
However, after we took off most passengers, including myself, simply moved to an empty row of seats and managed to independently socially distance.
Without firm instructions from the government, policies differ significantly from one carrier to the next, and blocking seats to encourage social distancing is not yet a blanket policy.
In a recent webcast American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said that the carrier would be “blocking 50% of standard middle class seats onboard”. Emirates has introduced a pre-allocated seat system so that vacant seats are placed between individual passengers or family groups in observance of social distancing protocols.
Back to Ryanair and its chief executive, Michael O’Leary, says there are no plans to socially distance in the skies. In fact O’Leary said the airline would not be looking at keeping the middle seat free, describing the idea as “mad”, “hopelessly ineffective” and unaffordable. Instead, he shifted the responsibility for passenger safety on to the government calling for temperature checks at the airport.
So recent headlines that Italy’s aviation regulator has threatened to ban Ryanair, alleging that the airline has not complied with rules brought in to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, are not at all surprising.