Airfares could rise 50% with onboard social distancing, industry group warns

Posted at 7:18 AM, May 07, 2020

If social distancing measures are enforced on aircrafts amid the coronavirus pandemic, airfares could rise more than 50% compared to last year's prices, an industry trade group warned.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines, suggested -- as part of a temporary, multi-pronged approach to security amid the COVID-19 outbreak -- that passengers and crew members wear face coverings on board, but strongly opposed mandated social distancing rules that would leave middle seats empty.

"Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low, and we will take measures -- such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew -- to add extra layers of protection," Alexandre de Juniac, the IATA’s CEO said in a statement. "We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit."

Social distancing measures on airlines will slash the maximum load factor to 62%, the IATA said, which is below the "average industry breakeven load factor" of 77%.

With fewer seats for sale, the association predicts air fares will rise 43% to 54% in 2020, depending on the region. And this, the IATA said, is just to help the airlines break even.

In addition to suggesting the use of face masks, the IATA is encouraging temperature screenings for passengers and workers, new boarding and deplaning processes to reduce contact between people, limited movement within the cabin during flight, more frequent cleaning of the aircraft and increased COVID-19 testing or immunity passports.

The group also argues that in the long term, the industry needs to have access to a vaccine (or equivalent) to prevent or cure COVID-19.

"We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective COVID-19 test that can be administered at scale. Work on all of these is promising, but none will be realized before we will need to restart the industry," de Juniac said. "That’s why we must be ready with a series of proven measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of in-flight transmission. And we must be careful not to hardwire any solution so we can be quick in adopting more efficient measures as they will undoubtedly become available."

The travel sector within the airline industry has been especially clobbered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Airlines for America, a U.S. trade group, said that without immediate action, the seven major U.S. airlines would run out of money by the end of the year.

The pandemic is expected to deliver a $314 billion blow to airline revenue in 2020, according to the IATA's latest estimates.