Qantas Passengers Can Look Forward to Masks, but Not Social Distancing

The airline’s new coronavirus prevention measures will not include keeping middle seats empty.

Photo: Qantas

Australian carrier Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar will roll out extra measures aimed at reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission on flights starting June 12, in preparation for the easing of domestic travel restrictions. But while the airlines’ Fly Safe program will see the provision of masks and sanitary wipes alongside a host of other safety precautions, they will not be leaving empty seats between passengers, maintaining that social distancing of that sort on an aircraft is neither practical nor necessary.

Pre-flight measures will include the encouragement of contactless check-in (via the airlines’ website or app) and self-serve bag drop; increased physical distancing at Qantas airport lounges; hand-sanitizing stations at departure gates; and the installation, wherever practical, of hygiene screens at airline customer service desks.

Onboard, Qantas and Jetstar passengers will be provided masks (which while not mandatory are “recommended to be worn in the interests of everyone’s peace-of-mind”) and sanitary wipes for cleaning seat belts, trays, and armrests themselves, though all aircraft will be subject to “enhanced cleaning” prior to boarding. Once seated, passengers will be asked to limit their movement around the cabin, while boarding and disembarkation procedures will be sequenced to minimize crowding.

“Safety is absolutely core to how we operate and that applies to new challenges like managing the risk of coronavirus so people can fly with confidence,” said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce in a statement issued earlier today. “We’ll continue to work with government and monitor the rollout of these measures closely, which are designed with safety in mind and help people feel comfortable given the new norms that have emerged in response to the coronavirus crisis.”

Left to right: Hand sanitizer at the gate; passengers should wear masks on board. (Photos: Qantas)

But the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) of Australia is critical of the Fly Safe program. Reacting to Qantas’ announcement, TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said: “The Qantas measures today are troubling. Qantas talks about providing ‘peace of mind’ and ‘wellbeing’ when the focus should not be on making people feel good but on taking the virus seriously and stopping the spread of infection.”

He added, “Workers want to be consulted on issues such as making masks for passengers mandatory, how that can be enforced and whether the middle seat should be kept free. Contrary to government guidelines on consulting with workers on Covid-19 plans, Qantas has failed to discuss changes with workers which will not only impact on passenger safety but their safety too.”

Qantas, however, considers the risk of catching coronavirus on an aircraft to be extremely low, saying that “the air conditioning systems of all Qantas and Jetstar aircraft are already fitted with hospital-grade HEPA filters, which remove 99.9 percent of all particles including viruses. Air inside the cabin is refreshed on average every five minutes during flight.”

Qantas Group Medical Director Dr. Ian Hosegood added in the statement that, apart from air filtration, the chances of being infected are greatly reduced by the fact that passengers also do not sit face-to-face, while the high backs of aircraft seats act as a physical barrier.

“Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we’re putting place will reduce the risk even further,” he said.

Qantas says its Fly Well program will be reviewed after its first month of operation and shaped by customer feedback and medical advice.

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