Airlines have ended social distancing on flights — health experts say that’s ‘wildly inappropriate’ and could lead to second wave

Airlines have ended social distancing on flights — health experts say that’s ‘wildly inappropriate’ and could lead to second wave
A Canadian epidemiologist has called the decision by Air Canada and WestJet to drop on-board seat distancing policies “wildly inappropriate,” warning that the move could lead to a second wave of COVID-19 in Canada.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, called it a “foolish” move from both a public health and a business standpoint.

“That’s how COVID arrived in Canada. It came on an airplane,” he said. “They’re really kind of setting us up ... for a really ugly second wave.”

The airlines maintain that temperature checks, mandatory face masks, HEPA air filters, deep cleaning and other measures mean that they can now seat passengers right next to each other, but all three independent health experts contacted by the Star said that the face masks, temperature checks and extra cleaning promised by airlines cannot replace the efficacy of social distancing.

Air Canada and WestJet said they would relax the procedures in accordance with the United Nation’s aviation agency and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) trade group, with WestJet later citing “economic necessity” for the move. Both airlines were previously blocking immediately adjacent seats.

But epidemiologists say it’s too soon for people to fly for any non-essential reason, and that if people do need to fly, social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Furness said the June 26 flight should serve as a scare for anyone thinking of flying recreationally.

He said Canadians who have to fly should choose airlines that are still distancing passengers — almost impossible now that both major airlines have ended the practice — or at least fly business class. And if they’re thinking of flying recreationally, he has this advice: “Maybe don’t.”

“What role do you want to have in propagating suffering and death? And is it worth it?”

Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said any air travel at all is taking a big risk, because “you’re doing exactly what the experts have been telling you not to do.”

He agreed with Furness that distance is much more effective than masks, and said no matter how careful passengers are, “it just takes one person” to spread COVID-19 on a flight.

In early June, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu was one of more than 130 executives from the travel and tourism industry who signed an open letter to the prime minister asking for looser travel restrictions and targeted quarantines for passengers coming from higher-risk countries. A week later, the company’s CFO echoed that call during a virtual event.

WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said in an email that the company is trying to balance “economic necessity” with the danger posed by the virus, and that the airline has been alerting the public about potential exposures since March 15 to remain transparent with customers.

Bell said WestJet airplanes are fitted with HEPA filters, which refresh air throughout the cabin and help clean recirculated air. She said the seat distancing measures were intended to be temporary while the airline ramped up all its other hygiene measures in preparation for the long haul.

Bell said WestJet’s posted schedule for July shows the airline operating at 13 per cent of last year’s capacity.

In an email, an Air Canada spokesperson pointed to HEPA filters as “a key reason why there are no reports of outbreak clusters on board flights.” The spokesperson said modern aircraft are made to “constantly scrub and refresh air every 2-3 minutes,” adding that the airline will notify passengers if their upcoming flight is near capacity and give them other flight options.

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“While we would all like a single measure that reduces risk, we are left to use a combination of approaches to mitigate risk,” the spokesperson said.

On May 19, the IATA called for an end to seat distancing, saying the use of masks rendered it unnecessary. A May 8 publication said continued distancing would make airlines economically unviable and that depending on configuration, seat distancing could result in a reduced capacity of 33 to 50 per cent, causing companies to lose money.

The May 19 publication also states that air filtering, seats as a barrier and the fact that “everybody is front facing” help negate the need for seat distancing.
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