NIGERIA:Social Distancing Row Threatens Return Of Domestic Flights

Aircraft in the fleet of indigenous carriers will soon resume operations. But conflict seems imminent. Reason: The contentious issue of the number of passengers they are permitted to airlift remains unresolved.

The carriers, scheduled to resume operations in five airports-Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano and Owerri for now, are in a fix as they struggle to comply with new post-COVID -19 guidelines which the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the National Centre For Disease Control (NCDC) issued with regard to health and safety of passengers.

A major plank of the guidelines mandates returning carriers to activate measures that will ensure social distancing of passengers on board each aircraft in order to curtail the spread of the deadly Coronavirus disease.

Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika said airlines that would resume operations are only permitted to carry between 50 and 70 per cent of the passenger capacity of their aircraft.

Sirika’s declaration in the last few weeks has not gone down well with operators and other stakeholders who argued that the already-clobbered air transport sector maybe on the verge of imminent collapse if load factor on aircraft is streamlined.

The minister had said: “Only 50 or 70 per cent of the passengers should be taken. These are some of the things that we have been looking at.

“This is because aviation, unlike other sectors, is a highly regulated sector.”

The minister said consultations had been on and would continue between the ministry and industry stakeholders on the best ways to operate profitably while at the same time ensuring the safety of travellers.

But operators are kicking against the proposed reduction in the number of passengers they could accommodate, saying such a suggestion is not profitable.

Experts say operators should focus on ensuring that all protocols at the airport and in the aircraft are strictly followed in line with short/domestic flights as recommended by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Amid anxiety over the issue, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) said discussions were ongoing on the modalities to be used in implementing physical distancing protocols in the aircraft. The apex regulatory body in the aviation sector said no decision has been taken on the proposal.

NCAA spokesman Sam Adurogboye explained that discussions were still ongoing on how best to implement the physical distancing guidelines in the sector.

According to him, if middle seats would be removed in order to enforce the physical distancing suggestion, it would be done in a safe and secure manner.

“We are still discussing the issue of physical distancing. There is no finality on that yet. We have to look at what is being done elsewhere. We cannot do ours in isolation,” he said.

Investigations by The Nation revealed that part of the issues that have arisen over modalities for compliance with the physical distancing protocol is the removal of middle seats in the aircraft.

President of Industry Think Thank Group – Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Dr Gbenga Olowo said achieving physical distancing on board the aircraft may not be realistic.

He said no airline would break even by carrying 40 per cent of passengers in an aircraft.

His words: “On board an aircraft, physical distancing will be quite taxing, except the aircraft will be configured to all first-class seats for economic operations.”

However, domestic airlines have complained that the post-COVID-19 guidelines would increase the cost of operations, even as they opposed suggestions that middle seats in aircraft are left vacant during flights.

Chairman, Air Peace, Allen Onyema and the Chief Accounting Officer of Dana Air, Obi Mbanuzuo said it would be difficult for airlines that were already paying 37 charges before the pandemic to cope with the extra cost that will come with post-COVID-19 guidelines.

Onyema disagreed with plans to leave the middle seats of aircraft open, saying it will further decimate airlines’ revenue and build up additional costs.

He said: “Authorities have reeled off things and these things come with a huge cost. How will airlines manage that and pay about 37 charges?

“We have to look at the purchasing power of Nigerians. Before COVID-19, our cheapest ticket was offering for N23, 000, amounting to $63. Now that the 63 dollars amounts to N40, 000, the question is can Nigerian passengers afford it?”

Many experts also faulted the planned elimination of middle seats on aeroplanes, saying it would worsen cost implications for airlines.

AeroContractors Managing Director Captain Ado Sanusi said physical distancing is not realistic inside a single-aisle plane.

DANA Air, which had earlier announced that it will leave the middle seat on board its aircraft unoccupied said it has not jettisoned the plan.

Its spokesman, Mr Kingsley Ezenwa, said the implementation of the plan would be largely determined by the Ministry of Aviation.

He appealed to the government to fast-track the proposed intervention for airlines if the physical distancing must be enforced.

International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global aviation trade group also opposed the blocking of middle seats in aircraft.

The Geneva-based IATA said physical distancing measures on planes would “fundamentally shift the economics of aviation.”

Its Director-General and Chief Executive Officer, Alexandre de Juniac, said: “Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end.

“On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is it a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery.”

Experts say blocking middle seats is not the way to go.

They maintained that doing so will not meet basic public health guidelines for physical distancing, and would be a serious problem for airlines’ finances.

The global aviation body said the risk of catching COVID-19 on a plane was low as there was no need to leave the middle seat empty.

IATA, however, backed the wearing of masks by both passengers and crew but said it did not s

upport physical distancing measures that would leave the middle seat empty in a row of three.

Juniac said: “There would be ‘dramatic cost increases’ if such seats were left empty.

IATA said available evidence so far, though limited, suggests that the risk of virus transmission on a plane was already low.

“The reasons for this could include the fact that passengers face forwards, with limited face-to-face interaction, while seats provide a barrier to the person in front.

“Air flows downwards from the ceiling to the floor further reducing the potential for transmission, while airflow rates are not high and not conducive to droplet spread as in regular indoor environments.”

The global body also said High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft will clean the cabin air to hospital operating theatre quality.

Juniac went on: “The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult.

“Our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence.

“Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we have recommended. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not the best option.

“Besides, everyone adopting masks on board, the proposed temporary measures to reduce the risk of infection include temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and passengers and limiting movement in the cabin mid-flight.

More frequent and deeper cleaning measures are being considered, along with boarding and disembarking processes that reduce contact.”

Besides IATA’s position, the global industry is planning to come up with a solution to flying in a future where hygiene is even more paramount. But not all airlines are entertaining the notion that it’s feasible to get rid of middle seats. Some carriers, including United, Delta, WestJet, EasyJet and other airlines have stopped carrying passengers in the middle seats.

Other carriers have announced plans to do away with the middle seats in their economy class cabins during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some airlines have started limiting seat selection for adjacent seats in all of their cabins, including middle seats where the available and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.

Across the globe, a section of passengers have expressed mixed feelings on the proposal to remove the “unloved middle seat.” Many passengers said they will not vote for the removal of the middle seat.

Managing Director of Tokyo-based LIFT Aero Design,  a firm that helps airlines’ design cabins and customer experience, Daniel Baron, said: “But would blocking middle seats actually help us maintain proper physical distancing? If so, how long could airlines keep doing it? Is it a realistic option beyond the very short term? “Right now, we need it, because not doing so would contradict instructions from authorities and common sense. The urgent need to slow infection rates takes precedence overall, even if the solution is not perfect.

“Long-term, however, it is not economically sustainable. After the dust settles, we will all go back to expecting affordable global mobility again.”

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