News reports say that India’s civil aviation regulator asked airlines on Monday to keep middle seats vacant on single-aisle jets to the extent possible. Else, they could provide wrap-around gowns. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) wants air operators to follow this directive, with the passenger load factor and seat capacity of their planes taken into account, as a measure to keep flyers safely apart and coronavirus at bay. The DGCA order is in line with advice of the International Air Transport Association, but appears to have been nudged by the Supreme Court, which observed a few days ago that the government ought to be more concerned about the health of citizens and that social distancing aboard aircraft was essential to fight the pandemic. Empty seats should have been the norm all along, but, as they say, better late than never.
Given how cramped economy-class seating on most planes is, aviation experts have argued that entire configurations need revision just to revive the confidence of passengers in flying. Earlier, the government had reasoned that spacing people out would turn airline operations unviable, since their seats need a certain minimum occupancy to make ends meet. This logic no longer holds, it seems, going by today’s DGCA order.
It is true that Indian air carriers are in deep financial trouble and operate on wafer-thin margins. Yet, they may discover that apart from must-fly cases, they won’t attract too many customers without assuring them that they won’t suffer accidental elbow and knee bumps from strangers. This would mean fewer people in a cabin, and thus a higher cost of every flight per head. Ticket prices are capped at the moment. These would have to be lifted, in accordance with realities of the day, lest the aviation sector sees its hopes of a recovery sink over the horizon.