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.