Australia

As Qantas and international airlines prepare to ramp up flights, how safe is flying?

Passengers on board a packed United Airlines flight wear masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus. Source: Twitter 'ethanjweiss'

Major airlines around the globe have announced scores of passenger flights reopening in time for Europe's summer, but experts say there may not be enough demand to make their services viable.

As airlines around the world open up more flights ahead of the northern hemisphere’s summer and Australian airlines prepare for a restart of domestic travel, aviation experts say the industry is working overtime to try and assure customers it is safe to travel.

Emirates, which halted all flights on 25 March, will resume passenger flights to nine destinations on 21 May, including London, Paris, Milan, Madrid in Europe as well as Sydney and Melbourne for returning Australians. 

In the US, both Delta and United have said they want to resume flights to China in June, while Finland’s national carrier Finnair is also planning to add flights to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea in July if lockdowns are eased.

European budget airline Ryanair also wants to reopen in July, while Lufthansa said it plans on operating flights to 40 destinations starting from June to transport summer holiday-makers around Europe. 

Both American Airlines and British Airways are also planning to resume flights between Europe and North America in June, while Qatar Airways, which never fully grounded its fleet, is planning to increase the number of destinations available from 30 to 80 by the end of June.

Monash University aviation expert Greg Bamber said while social distancing would be “very difficult” on board, airlines are going to great lengths to assure potential customers their services are safe.

“Airlines are trying to alleviate these concerns with various measures, including blocking off the middle seats or saying they’ll only fill their business class cabin at 50 per cent capacity and their economy cabin at perhaps two-thirds capacity,” he told SBS News.

“Other airlines are insisting staff and passengers must wear face masks. Some are saying passengers need to be temperature tested or prove they have been tested for COVID-19 recently, and some airlines are saying everyone’s bags and belongings need to be tested and sprayed and sanitised as they go through security.” 

While Australia’s international borders remain closed to non-citizens or residents, Qantas and Jetstar have released its COVID-safe plans ahead of the relaxing of interstate border controls. 

"There is a possibility that we might have nearly all the states opening up as early as July and we're planning for that," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said on Tuesday.

"We have the ability to put a large amount of our capacity back into the air dependent on plans, and we're giving people certainty about what the process would look like, and the health and wellbeing that we're putting in place."

The airlines' COVID-19 measures, to be rolled out from 12 June, include the provision of recommended face masks for passengers, enhanced aircraft cleaning, hand-sanitising stations at departure gates, and sequenced boarding and disembarkation to avoid crowding.

Service and catering will be simplified to minimise contact between passengers and crew, with passengers asked to limit their movement around the cabin once seated, but middle seats will not be left empty. 

Mr Joyce defended the airline's decision not to apply social distancing rules to seating on Wednesday morning, saying it would be "uneconomical" to leave that many seats empty.

"It's not social distancing, it's a 60-centimetre difference between two people," he told ABC radio.

"To get the four metres squared, you'll end up with 22 people on an aircraft of 180 seats... and the airfares are nine to 10 times as much."

Manufacturers reassure passengers

With airlines cancelling more and more orders for new planes, aircraft manufacturers have also rushed to reassure passengers their planes are safe to board during the pandemic.

Both Boeing and Airbus have moved to explain how cabin air filtration works on board, telling passengers the air on board is renewed every two to three minutes using filters designed to remove some 99.97 per cent of contaminants - including viruses. 

Mr Bamber said that while international carriers had scheduled flights, it was still too difficult to tell if there was enough demand for international travel at this point to make the services viable.

“In a recent survey of more than 2,000 people in the US, 75 per cent said they don’t feel comfortable booking to fly any time soon and more than a third said they want to see mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing and temperature screenings during their journey,” he said.

“There is also the hip pocket or handbag factor - many people have lost their jobs and had a massive reduction in their income, so some people won’t be able to afford airline tickets for some time.”

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While European and US airlines push to reopen routes for their summer, Australia is showing no sign of opening its borders.

“There is nothing on our radar which would see us opening up international travel in the foreseeable future,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.

With additional reporting by Reuters and AAP

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. 

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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