Airlines do away with social distancing on board

Do not expect the middle seat or for that matter the seat next to you to be empty when you fly.

Back when the coronavirus started to take its toll on air travel, airlines had given assurances that the middle seat would be kept vacant or that there would be a limit on the capacity as a way to social distance in order to reduce possible infection of the disease.

It was easy then when the load dropped to as low as 95 per cent for many carriers as there was never a squeeze on seats. But as travel creeps back, airlines are finding it does not make economic sense to forgo revenue to keep seats empty, never mind the risk of exposing their customers to the hazard.

Courtesy Getty Images

Air Canada and WestJet will end their seat distancing policy effective 1 July. They are sheltering behind the guidelines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which deems this to be unnecessary while recommending other measures such as the wearing of masks.

Similarly American Airlines announced that it will open booking to full capacity. The same goes with United Airlines, although it will allow passengers to rebook on another flight if the capacity exceeds 70 per cent. It is not a decision any traveller will be happy to make at the last minute.

Across the Atlantic, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary has called social distancing in seating “just nonsense”.

It seems contradictory if airlines and airports would encourage social distancing before and after boarding that they should deem the need as unnecessary on board which is an even smaller confined space within which passengers may be held for an inordinately long period of time. The IATA recommendation in this respect therefore runs counter to the guidelines set by several governments.

Transport Canada,for example, has said: “Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing.” But, of course, “where possible” may become not possible if carriers are selling to full capacity unless it becomes mandatory to limit the capacity.

In the United States, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has urged airlines to maintain at least one seat between all passengers and cap seating at 67 per cent of capacity on narrow-body planes.

What then is the priority, you may ask? It seems it is up to the passenger to take the chances, but surely it must be in the interest of the community that everyone abides by the same set of health rules. Besides, contradictory recommendations can only cause confusion.

…but not Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Getty Images

Delta Air Lines though will continue to limit the capacity on board to no more than 60 per cent. Chief executive Ed Bastian said: “We need to make certain that we take all precautions for our people, for our customers, reinforcing wearing masks, social distancing, keeping our plans only at 60 per cent full, making certain every seat next to a customer is open, so you have space on board, and doing everything we can to be cautious in the face of the spread.”

Mr Bastian added that Delta will continue with the policy post-September, although the cap may change after that.

Like Delta, presently Southwest Airlines and JetBlue are also blocking middle seats or restricting capacity. Ryanair’s rival easyJet is also doing likewise.

Air travellers should know what to or not expect when they book with a particular airline to avoid disappointment and be prepared if they have any concerns about the current situation of flying during a global pandemic.

Baggage Woes

Courtesy Ryanair

Ryanair

Ryanair flew into a rough patch with Italian antitrust lobbyists following its decision to levy new fees for hand luggage. Unless you pay €6 (US$7) for priority boarding, you will be allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage, which must be able to fit the space under the seat in front. Any second piece (up to 10 kg) to be checked in will be at a cost of €8.

Antitrust advocates said this could amount to unfair commercial practice as hand luggage should be “an essential element of transport”. It would distort fares and make it difficult for comparison across the industry.

In defence Ryanair said its policy was intended to “improve punctuality and reduce boarding gate delays”. In fact, it maintained that it would not make any money out of it and may in fact lose revenue when more passengers switched to carrying smaller bags instead of the the normally larger suitcases which must be checked in at a higher fee.

However, research by US travel consultancy IdeaWorks suggests that a third of the airline’s profits came from so-called “ancillary revenue” comprising £1.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) from charges for add-ons such as checked baggage and seat selection last year.

Swoop

Across the pond in Canada, new Calgary-based budget carrier by WestJet is also facing complaints about fees charged for a carry-on bag. The fee is C$35 (US$27) if paid in advance, C$50 if paid at the time of check-in at the airport, and C$80 at the gate.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs has filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming that this is unlawful since the Canada Transportation Act requires domestic airlines to offer a basic fare for travel within the country that has no restrictions with “reasonable baggage”.

As in the Italian argument, Lukacs finds Swoop’s practice “deceptive”. While what constitutes “reasonable” may be debatable, the general rule thus far has been that the allowable one piece has to fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Ryanair has restricted the carriage at no fee to the space under the seat, but Swoop is not even considering that. In defence, Swoop says it is “confident that Canadians are appreciative of the ability to be in control of what they pay for.”

American carriers

Meantime south of the border, American carriers are taking turns to up their checked baggage fees. American Airlines joined JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in raising their fees from US$25 to US$30 for the first bag, and from US$35 to US$40 for the second bag. Budget carriers Spirit and Frontier are already charging between US$40 and US$50 per bag. For now, Alaska Airlines has kept its fees at US$25 for the first and second bags, while Southwest Airlines still allows passengers to check in two bags for free.

These fees generally apply to travel within North America and to destinations in the Caribbean. Internationally, the likes of United Airlines cannot afford to ignore the competition especially in Asia where many legacy airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are still generous with free carriage of two checked bags.

Indeed, ancillary services have become a significant billion dollar business world-wide in an airline’s portfolio as more operators including legacy airlines go “a la carte” to keep the fare seemingly low but charge extra for features that used to be part and parcel of the normal ticket price. And the list is getting longer to include also priority check-in, priority seats (with more leg room), meals and headsets. It will not stop growing as the permutation multiplies, as can be seen in the different ways charges are applied even within the same service category, such as the baggage fees imposed by Ryanair.