Airlines are eager to get back in the skies as soon as possible, even if that means changing the way they fly. There will likely be many new social distancing measures that airlines and airports will have to adopt so people feel safe flying again, but one of the most widely discussed has been leaving middle seats empty, to ensure passengers are maintaining a safe distance from one another.
Some airlines, however, aren’t too keen on the idea. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has outright refused to resume flights if governments mandated an empty middle seat policy.
According to O’Leary, the budget airline business model requires high loads, and wouldn’t be profitable if forced to carry only two-thirds of its capacity. “We can’t make money on 66 percent load factors,” he told the Financial Times. “Even if you do that, the middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway.”
O’Leary’s advice is for European airlines to follow Asia’s lead and impose a variety of other safety measures, like requiring passengers to wear masks or implementing temperature checks at the airport. In contrast to many other airline heads, O’Leary is remaining optimistic about the near-future of air travel.
“I think Ryanair in summer 2021 will be carrying our 2019 traffic plus growth,” he said, “but the airports will still have less traffic than they had before.” O’Leary expects 80 percent of all Ryanair flights to resume by September 2020.
Rival budget airline EasyJet, however, does plan to leave all middle seats empty when it begins flying again. EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren told The Guardian, “Our assumption is that load factors will not be back to normal early on, which means that we will have the opportunity for a middle-seat option, but I’m talking about this as an initial phase and nobody knows for how long that phase will be.”