The Plague-Ground – Are airplanes our next long-term care residences?

Last week a passenger on a WestJet flight from Toronto to Halifax tested positive for COVID-19 after it landed. This prompted the Nova Scotia Health Authority to warn everyone on the flight to get tested, and especially those in Rows 16 to 21, seats A to C.

Which means people were sitting in Seat B, the middle seat.

Remember three short months ago when we all swore we’d never fly in the middle seat?

That was an easy oath to keep because the airlines had stopped filling them.

Until July 1 when Air Canada and WestJet started selling them again.

The rationale for both airlines is the claim by IATA, the International Air Transport Association, that selling the middle seat will avoid “the dramatic cost increases to air travel.” What IATA meant to say was that it would avoid the dramatic revenue decreases that come from only selling two-thirds of your inventory.

The issue here is money versus safety, and it’s important to remember that IATA isn’t an objective regulator: it’s the airline industry’s lobby group.

Back in May, Air Canada introduced CleanCare+, a set of measures to make sure their planes are as clean as can be. Today, pretty much all airlines offer some variation of this package.

But if I have to sit ten feet from the next person when I’m waiting at the gate for my flight, why can I sit three inches from them on my flight and think I’ll be as safe?

So in mid-June, Ottawa introduced mandatory temperature checks. If you have a fever, you can’t get on the plane. Which is fine, but we all know you can have COVID-19 and spread it for two weeks before you have any symptoms. Besides, as Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said in May: “The more you actually understand this virus, the more you begin to know that temperature-taking is not effective at all.”

There’s another problem with flying that you don’t get on the ground: A flight is not a trip to the beach. You can’t decide halfway through that you want to leave.

Besides, if you weren’t in a plane, would you sit indoors three inches from a total stranger for five straight hours, the flight time from Toronto to Vancouver, which is Air Canada’s most popular long-haul summer-time flight?

Even with the airline’s vastly reduced schedule, if you decide you want to fly any time today from Toronto to Vancouver, you can get on six flights.

Now if I were an airline, I’d be pushing to sell that middle seat too. What other sector has been vaporized as much as the airlines?

But that doesn’t mean they should open up the middle seat. That same IATA that pushed so hard to pack the world’s airplanes said: “The safety of our passengers is paramount.”

WestJet claims on its website that “Safety has and continues to be our top priority.”

Air Canada claims on its website that: “…We believe in putting safety first, always.”

In fact, back in May, a senior Air Canada executive told an online conference: “We want people to think of [it] almost like a hospital operating theatre on board….You won’t get the virus from flying on an Air Canada flight.”


But the real question is, now that Canadians seem to be getting the coronavirus from flying, period, when the next outbreak happens onboard, how quickly will Ottawa move to keep our airlines from selling the middle seat?

Because the safety of passengers is almost paramount.

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8 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Are airplanes our next long-term care residences?”

  1. Cindy Caron Thorburn

    The song says it all….

    Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
    And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
    It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
    Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
    Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
    Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

    (Stealers Wheel, 1972)

  2. In any other context I would have said – Bob, you have a lightning grasp of the obvious! And yet to IATA, the Airlines and the Government, this is anything but obvious. The solution is simple – don’t fly unless those middle seats are empty. Period. Then 2/3 revenue will start looking pretty good.

  3. Bob, I think the big problem is seat “pitch.” Let’s say you are in a window seat in economy. The guy behind you is breathing 2 feet away. Then the rude SOB in front dumps his seat into full recline, and he is literally in your lap.

    1. I agree, Eric. When a senior airline executive says their planes will be like operating rooms, and then they start selling the middle seat….
      it’s almost…..well, the word “Trumpian” comes to mind!

  4. Madeline Thompson

    The middle seat and airline travel itself have become a huge conundrum.
    What if you need to get somewhere and air is the only to do it. But the
    cost is beyond comprehension (ex.: flight from HCMC Vietnam to CM
    Thailand, 1 hr.45 minutes – 1,500+ US$) But you really need to do it.
    That’s extreme but there are many instances that call things similar
    to mind. Do you forgo your next mortgage payment – and more perhaps –
    to do something that is very important. Or do they open up the middle
    seat and take your chances? Maybe really low price for middle seat..?
    Everywhere you turn in this Covid thing, there are morality issues. At
    what point do we just say – open it up, I’ll take my chances. Like we’ve
    been doing most of our lives, in one way or another, up to now. I think
    this will become truly major decision making in the soon future.

  5. Sharon Taylor

    Ok well let’s park finger pointing at the corporates. The airlines should not fly unless it is profitable.
    So if they fly and charge appropriately to say take ? Maybe a 10 percent margin which seems reasonable for the risk, or 5. Whatever, so long as it returns to the shareholder.

    Then the question is, what flights at what volumes at what price point will that work out to? It’s simple math. PxQ.

    I suggest then if they must keep 1/3 the seats empty, selling 30 percent fewer seats, price must increase by a minimum 50 percent. If we are all ok with that and don’t cry foul, great. But I can already hear the masses claiming hardship and next thing you know it is a God given right to fly. Sure. If you are a bird.

    Maybe if one wishes to be risk free, then don’t fly. Bummer but there it is. Also I am not convinced with recirculating air flow in a plane, that the artificial constraint of being 6 feet away from an asymptomatic Covid19 flyer , that those six feet much matter? I assume someone will invent an air purirfication system. Something pumping in fresh stored air and capturing air molecules that have been used by people’s lungs or otherwise. But that too will be a pretty big operating room cost. Up go those prices …
    Which means flying only for the super elite who can afford it, or discount airlines will fly without such safety precautions and the brave, cheap, desperate or ignorant will take their chances.

    Sorry long rant like description. All to say this is not all on the airlines. Regulators need to enforce safety standards, airlines need to adhere to guidelines but fly profitably, and we need to pay the freight. The real cost. Not a subsidized version, unless that too is a value system that Canadians are willing to pay for through their taxes, whether they fly or not.

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