Airline passengers trying to switch seats will be told to stay put amid pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic transforms passenger aviation, the cheap-seats shuffle is no more.

Traditionally, some economy-class passengers on flights that are not full will move from their assigned seats before or shortly after take-off.

But anyone hoping to take advantage of extra space is likely to be scolded by cabin crew and told to go back to their assigned place.

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Passengers remaining in their allocated seats is one of the measures the International Air Transport Association (Iata) says will be necessary when aviation restarts at scale.

Iata’s member airlines are desperate to attract new business. The association calculates that the airline industry’s global debt could rise to $550bn (£450bn) by the end of the year.

The restart will depend upon passenger confidence. Airlines and airports are deploying measures from airport temperature checks to mandatory face coverings on board in a bid to reduce risk and reassure travellers.

But since some passengers may, knowingly or not, take flights while infectious, Iata is also recommending a track-and-trace system whereby nearby travellers can be reached after the journey and told to self-isolate.

Nick Careen, Iata’s senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security, said: “Once you are in your seat, you can’t change any more.”

By ensuring the airline’s seating records tally with passenger behaviour, contact tracing will be much more effective.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic some airlines sought to dampen self-service seat selection on board, in order not to disrupt complex “weight and balance” calculations. But many were lax, so long as passengers did not attempt to “self-upgrade”.

Alexandre de Juniac, Iata’s director general and CEO, said the aviation industry plans “a science-based biosecurity regime that will keep our passengers and crew safe while enabling efficient operations”.

He said: “The restart will go much more smoothly if governments cooperate.

“We must avoid the mess that followed 9/11 when governments acted unilaterally. This created confusion for airlines and travellers alike. And it took many years to clean up.

“We have a small window to avoid these mistakes with Covid-19 by agreeing global standards for a restart. In doing so, we must build in measures for continuous review so that we can streamline the system as science and technology evolve.”

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90 excruciating seconds at the Transport Select Committee

“Minister, we haven’t got much time, so some pithy answers please, rather than vacuous, long-winded ones.”

The speaker was Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln. He was addressing his parliamentary colleague, Kelly Tolhurst.

Ms Tolhurst is the aviation minister, and she was answering questions during Wednesday’s hearing of the Transport Select Committee.

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MPs on the committee are taking evidence about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the travel industry.

As you will know, one of the key topics is the impending quarantine for anyone arriving in the UK.

The government will bring in 14 days of mandatory self-isolation early in June. It says: “Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, and other countries begin to lift lockdown measures, it is the right time to prepare new measures at the border.”

Whether by accident or design, the quarantine policy has potential to cause even more damage than the immense harm already wrought upon the UK travel industry by the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost no one is going to want to travel to Britain with the prospect of spending the next two weeks unable to venture outside. That includes those of us who are desperate for a holiday abroad but cannot contemplate 14 days of self-isolation at the end of it.

We all hope that the spread of Covid-19 will remain under control. It is a safe bet that other countries will be lifting lockdown measures for many months. So I predict the justification for quarantine will prevail for the rest of the year.

Given the imminent deployment of an unprecedented measure with the potential to destroy every UK airline and holiday company, it was unsurprising that MPs wanted answers from the minister about quarantine: when it will start, how it will work and – crucially – what needs to change for the travel-crushing measure to be lifted.

I have watched the excruciating 90-second exchange between Mr McCartney and his fellow Tory several times.

“Are you going to reconsider the 14-day period?” he asks.

“So obviously that’s something that is being led by the Home Office, so obviously these things are under review,” replied the minister.

“So that’s a ‘no’,” he concludes – and asks about arrivals to the UK who would be exempt from the need to go home and stay there.

“So obviously in relation to the exemptions, the exemption lists are being looked and finalised, and obviously – ”

“Yes or no,” demanded Mr McCartney.

“Well, I haven’t – we haven’t – got the full lists, that’s work that’s been ongoing, around what would be on the exemption lists and ultimately, as the DfT I’ve been very focused on making sure that …”

As the unfortunate minister wittered on, the exchange became even more heated before Mr McCartney handed back to the chair.

Kelly Tolhurst deserves sympathy. The MPs on the transport committee know that, collectively, many tens of thousands of their constituents depend on travel for their livelihoods.

Many more of their voters are booked to go on holiday as early as 12 June, the date Tui plans to re-start departures. And yet they have no way of knowing whether a condition of their annual holiday will be sitting inside for a fortnight on returning home.

All that you, me and the mystified MPs know about the quarantine policy we glean from briefings and counter-briefings by No 10 and the Department for Transport.

In an all-too-public forum, the hapless junior minister was obliged to to defend a quarantine policy that her department and almost anyone connected with travel thinks, in the words of Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, is both intensely destructive and “absolutely bonkers” (a fellow airline chief executive used a rather stronger term in private).

No wonder Kelly Tolhurst’s bluster exasperated her fellow MPs with vacuous, long-winded answers. At a time when everyone needs clarity, all she could honestly offer was meaningless prevarication. But it wasn’t her fault.

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Greece plans to open up for international tourists on 1 July

As the race between southern European nations to attract summer tourists gathers pace, the Greek prime minister has announced international visitors will be welcomed from 1 July – with lower fares on public transport and cheaper coffee.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the domestic tourism season will begin on 15 June, with the first international holiday flights touching down 16 days later.

The news service Ekathimerini.com reported that passengers will be subject to random coronavirus tests at the airport.

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At present anyone arriving in Greece from abroad must go into 14 days’ self-isolation. “This is mandatory, and the authorities will enforce it by prosecution and fines,” warns the Foreign Office.

The quarantine obligation will be lifted in time for the start of international flights.

Mr Mitsotakis said that VAT on public transport and non-alcoholic drinks will be cut from 24 to 13 per cent.

In a normal year, around three million UK visitors – the vast majority of them tourists – travel to Greece.

But British travellers may not initially benefit from the re-opening.

The soon-to-be-imposed self-isolation rules for passengers arriving back in the UK will scupper most holiday trips in June and possibly July.

Earlier this week, the Greek minister of tourism urged the UK to agree to mutual “quarantine immunity”.

On the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast, Harry Theocharis said: “If we don’t impose quarantine for people coming to Greece from the UK from some day onwards, we would welcome if the UK extended the same thing.”

The UK’s quarantine programme was announced by the prime minister on 10 May. The Home Office promises details of the policy will be revealed shortly, with the mandatory self-isolation beginning in June.

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How flying could change for the better after coronavirus

In what travellers will look back upon fondly as the golden year of 2019, my final air journey was from Sharm el Sheikh via Istanbul to London with the excellent Turkish airline, Pegasus.

It was certainly the journey on which I endured the highest number of searches. In 2015, a Metrojet passenger plane en route to St Petersburg crashed shortly after take-off from the Egyptian resort with the loss of 224 lives. The presumption is that a bomb was placed on board in Sharm el Sheikh, and as a result the UK banned flights to and from the airport for the following four years.

As I wrote at the time, checks began at the road entrance to the airport from the highway, with dogs sniffing my baggage.

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Twice the details from my passport were diligently inscribed in a ledger. My laptop was laboriously swabbed for traces of explosives, twice, and I went through two full-body pat-downs, within sight of each other.

In an age of social distancing, it will be interesting to see how Sharm el Sheikh airport changes its approach to security.

But allow me to focus on what happened next, on touchdown at Sabiha Gokcen airport (the city’s Gatwick to Istanbul’s shiny new airport, the equivalent of Heathrow): the exact opposite of social distancing.

Several planes had arrived almost at once, and about 1,000 of us packed into to a tiny security search area. Groundhog day for we arrivals from Sharm el Sheikh.

According to a roadmap from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), that second search should become unnecessary.

The airline body urges: “Access to the terminal building should be restricted to airport/airline workers and travellers.” That makes sense from the point of view of both biosecurity and old-fashioned aviation security. But it will not play well with “meeters and greeters”, and on departure the “weepers and wailers”, nor with the catering outlets that depend upon them.

But a less-crowded airport environment is a definite plus for the passenger.

At the departure airport, IATA foresees several layers of protective measures:

“Boarding should be made as efficient as possible with redesigned gate areas, congestion-reducing boarding priorities, and hand luggage limitations.” With the possible exception of those of us who shun checked baggage, that looks good.

On board, the main concern is that the airline should be able to see all the seats.

“Social distancing on board (leaving the middle seat open) is obviated by the wearing of face coverings by all on board on top of transmission reducing characteristics of the cabin: everybody is front facing, air flow is from ceiling to floor, seats provide a barrier to forward/aft transmission, and air filtration systems that operate to hospital operating theatre standards. And Ryanair’s “ask before you go to the bathroom” approach receives the IATA seal of approval: Reduced congregation of passengers in the cabin, for example, by prohibiting queues for washrooms.

On arrival, some parts of the roadmap take on the hue of a wish list: “Accelerated processing and baggage reclaim to enable social distancing by reducing congestion and queuing.” All travellers would enjoy that prospect in the sunlit uplands of future travel: your bag waiting eagerly as you stroll up to baggage reclaim. But I don’t believe that any ground handler is deliberately slouching, and without massive investment in people and equipment I can’t see much room for improvement.

One aspect of changing planes can be achieved to the benefit of passengers: mutual recognition of security. If you fly from Edinburgh to London and connect to Chicago, you will be deemed at Heathrow airport to be “clean” and need not suffer the indignities of security once again.

The same applies in the US when you have been screened once by the Transportation Safety Administration: at subsequent connection points, you swerve security. If nations are confident in each other’s standards, it makes good sense to subtract the intermediate security step – saving time, stress and an avoidable airport pinch point.

But at a time when nations seem more disunited than ever, it remains to be seen if the aviation world can agree on this simple step.

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ATPCO automates coronavirus waivers for travel agents

ATPCO has developed an automated solution enabling airlines
to override existing fare rules and waive change fees in the GDSs.

The solution will go live in the Sabre, Amadeus and
Travelport GDSs for American Airlines tickets on June 7. Other airlines are
also expected to use the technology. 

As a result, travel agencies won’t have to manually process
the voluminous fee waivers and ticket validity extensions that airlines have implemented due to the Covid-19 crisis.

“It is incredibly time-consuming for each airline and agency
to manually process changes to tickets,” Eloise Rorke, ATPCO’s lead for product
development, wrote in a recent blog. “Each airline was trying to come up with their
own solution and nothing was working the same way across all channels. ATPCO
saw this happening and, as a service organization to the industry, started
looking for ways to help.”

In an email, American spokeswoman Rachel Warner said the
carrier helped champion development of the new solution alongside ATPCO and
other technology partners. She said that when it goes live, the solution will
restore a sense of normalcy for agencies. 

Following the launch, the GDSs will be able to automatically
price American’s free change fee for impacted tickets, meaning agencies won’t
have to manually review policies against each ticket. 

At present, American is allowing one free change for all
tickets purchased by May 31 for travel between March and September. Validity on
such tickets has also been extended through 2021, In addition, ticket validity
has been extended through 2021 for all unused ticket that were slated to expire
between this March and this September.

Airline-owned ATPCO uploads fare data into the GDSs. American,
Delta and United are part of the ownership group.

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Coronavirus epidemic could deal mortal blow to Spain's struggling bullfighting world




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Ryanair plans to run 40% of its planned July flights if quarantine rules allow

“Don’t stay at home. Go on holiday. But don’t queue for the loo.”

That is the effective message from Ryanair, which is planning to re-start 40 per cent of its planned network for the main summer months.

The airline warns that “Project Lift-off” is subject to effective public health measures being put in place at airports – which is a given – and government restrictions on intra-EU flights being lifted, which is not.

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Boris Johnson has said that most travellers returning from abroad will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. Few details have emerged, including the start date

At present, Europe’s biggest budget airline is running a skeleton service of just 30 flights a day, concentrated on connecting Ireland and the UK.

Flights will be ramped up from late June ready for implementing the reduced July schedule in full.

To kick-start sales, Ryanair is offering some very low fares, such as £43 from Manchester to Faro in Portugal on 28 June and £45 from Edinburgh to Rome on 1 July.

It appears that passengers from France will avoid the need to quarantine. If this is the case, then many returning travellers are likely to plan to return via a French airport.

A 7 July departure from Perpignan to Birmingham costs €50 (£44).

Passengers returning to the familiar fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft will find some big differences, however. They will be expected to wear face coverings while passing through the airport and on the aircraft.

Cabin crew, wearing face masks, will make inflight sales only with contactless payments, and passengers will not be permitted to line up for the toilet.

Ryanair’s chief executive, Eddie Wilson said: “After four months, it is time to get Europe flying again  so we can reunite friends and families, allow people to return to work, and restart Europe’s tourism industry, which provides so many millions of jobs.

“With more than six weeks to go to 1st July, Ryanair believes this is the most practical date to resume normal flight schedules, so that we can allow friends and families to reunite, commuters to go back to work, and allow those tourism based economies such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, France and others, to recover what is left of this year’s tourism season.”

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Government’s quarantine policy is causing consternation for airlines

Travel bosses have expressed incredulity at the government’s quarantine policy, asking if the intention was to prevent the restart of passenger aviation.

Twenty-eight UK aviation leaders — including chief executives of the biggest airlines and airports — have written to the prime minister to demand a meeting over plans for mandatory 14-day isolation for arriving passengers.

They say: “An open-ended quarantine, with no set end date, will make an already critical situation for UK aviation, and all the businesses we support, even worse.

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“People will simply choose not to travel to and from the UK, at the same time as economies in Europe and around the world begin opening up their borders and removing their own quarantines.

“Passenger travel cannot restart, and clarity from government is needed as to whether such an outcome is the intention or expectation of this measure.”

They say they have not received any details of the scientific advice underpinning the measure, nor the conditions and process for withdrawing it.

In his address to the nation on Sunday evening, the prime minister announced that arrivals by air would be required to self-isolate.

The Covid-19 “road map” published on Monday appears to contradict Boris Johnson’s assertion that it would apply only to “people coming into this country by air”.

The document says: “The government will require all international arrivals not on a short list of exemptions to self-isolate in their accommodation for 14 days on arrival into the UK.

It adds that anyone without a pre-arranged place to stay “will be required to do so in accommodation arranged by the government.”

The government said the measures “will be introduced as soon as possible”.

Travellers from the Republic of Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, will be exempt.

The road map promises: “Further details, and guidance, will be set out shortly, and the measures and list of exemptions will be kept under regular review.”

One effect of the quarantine will be to render planned summer holidays to the Mediterranean and beyond impossible for many customers who are unable to meet the 14-day self-isolation requirement for family or professional reasons.

They are not legally entitled to refunds, but big travel companies such as Tui and Jet2 may decide to cancel operations over the summer peak in response, rather than operate with a large number of “no-shows”.

One senior aviation source said: “It beggars belief that a policy that is going to cost hundreds of millions of pounds has been so badly thought through.”

In the Commons, Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, asked Boris Johnson when the quarantine would start. The prime minister declined to respond.

But Mr Johnson did reject Mr Blackford’s suggestion that the quarantine policy could be abandoned before it has even taken effect. The SNP MP had asked: “Can the prime minister confirm if his own transport secretary has told airline industry leaders if there are too many obstacles implementing it, it may not even happen?”

The government’s document announcing the changes says: “As the level of infection in the UK reduces, and the government prepares for social contact to increase, it will be important to manage the risk of transmissions being reintroduced from abroad.

“Therefore, in order to keep overall levels of infection down and in line with many other countries, the government will introduce a series of measures and restrictions at the UK border.

“This will contribute to keeping the overall number of transmissions in the UK as low as possible.

“Small exemptions to these measures will be in place to provide for continued security of supply into the UK and so as not to impede work supporting national security or critical infrastructure and to meet the UK’s international obligations.”

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Holidays at risk as Boris Johnson set to announce 14 day quarantine for travellers arriving in UK

New quarantine rules are set to crush the UK travel industry for many more weeks, wrecking overseas holiday plans for millions.

The Independent understands the prime minister will announce on Sunday that travellers arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail will be obliged to self-isolate in stringent conditions for 14 days. The aim is to reduce the rate of coronavirus infection.

The transport secretary hinted about the policy when interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on 3 May. Grant Shapps said: “I think it is important that [the sacrifices] we are asking the British people to make are matched by anybody who comes to this country.

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“I am actively looking at these issues right now so that when we have infection rates within the country under control we are not importing.”

The move will wipe out almost all tourism and business travel for as long as it remains in force – which is likely to be at least until July.

Already, the pilots’ union has demanded that the government pays compensation for the financial damage the move will cause, while British Airways may ground all flights.

These are the key issues.

Define quarantine

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), quarantine is: “The restriction of activities of, or the separation of, persons who are not ill but who may been exposed to an infectious agent or disease, with the objective of monitoring their symptoms and ensuring the early detection of cases.

“Quarantine is different from isolation, which is the separation of ill or infected persons from others to prevent the spread of infection or contamination.”

How many people are coming into the UK?

At present, fewer than 10,000 people arrive each day – compared with around 300,000 daily arrivals before Covid-19.

Most are passengers flying into Heathrow airport. Stansted, Luton and Manchester are the other leading arrival airports. A few dozen turn up on the single daily Eurostar trains from Brussels and Paris to London St Pancras. And several hundred more arrive at British ports by ferry.

What is being proposed?

Almost everyone arriving from abroad at a UK airport, seaport or international rail station will be told that they must self-isolate for two weeks under stringent conditions.

The only exceptions are expected to be some key workers; flight, train and ship crew; and international transit passengers, the vast majority of whom will be connecting at Heathrow airport.

What is the process?

Inbound travellers will effectively be treated as though they have symptoms of coronavirus. They will fill in a form with their personal particulars, including passport data, stating where they intended to self-isolate, and providing contact details. They will be given a “stay-at-home notice” (SHN) telling them to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people.

After 14 days, if they do not develop symptoms, they will be allowed to join the general population.

Arrivals with no address in the UK will be told to stay in a hotel room, at their own expense – though very few people are likely to fall into this category.

How will quarantine be enforced?

Haphazardly. The authorities may maintain some sort of telephone contact, but mobile phones render that pointless for enforcement.

A system of random spot checks by inspectors is likely; they will call unannounced at the stated address. If the individual is not at home, they will be sought and prosecuted.

Will it work?

Even though almost all countries of origin have a lower incidence of coronavirus than the UK, it is possible that a small proportion of the arrivals from abroad may be carrying coronavirus and will be identified through the quarantine process.

But the World Health Organisation does not recommend quarantine for the infection phase in which the UK finds itself.

WHO says: “Introducing quarantine measures early in an outbreak may delay the introduction of the disease to a country or area or may delay the peak of an epidemic in an area where local transmission is ongoing, or both.”

In other words, if quarantine is to be used, it must be deployed early. Introducing mandatory self-isolation at this stage has been described as “too much, too late”.

So why is it happening now?

Downing Street believes that introducing quarantine at the same time as other measures are being eased will send a message that the government is not lightening up too much or too fast.

The British public appears to be strongly in favour of the measures. Some high-profile figures, including Piers Morgan of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, have described the fact that there are no controls on arriving travellers as an outrage.

In a Twitter poll conducted on behalf of The Independent with more than 2,000 self-selecting respondents, a very large majority – 78 per cent – were in favour of controls.

What will the effect be?

Quarantine will scupper the plans that airlines, airports, rail operators, ferry lines and travel firms have prepared for a gradual resumption of foreign holidays and international business travel.

A trickle of passengers – typically those returning from being stuck abroad – might endure a 14-day quarantine in order to be reunited with loved ones. But it is difficult to see that anyone would plan to travel abroad if they knew they faced two weeks in a far tougher lockdown than currently in force in the UK when they return. So the vast majority of planned trips will be cancelled.

Leading tour operators such as Jet2 Holidays and Tui were hoping to start offering package holidays at scale as early as mid-June.

Most big airlines, including British Airways, easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair, were aiming to resume operations to and from the UK at or around the start of July. They now fear that “Project Lift-Off” will be put on hold indefinitely, further damaging future bookings.

What are the implications for travellers with flights or holidays booked?

Standard rules apply for now: from a consumer rights’ perspective, they must assume that the trip will go ahead unless and until it is officially cancelled by the operator.

Once a cancellation is notified, package holiday firms are supposed to refund within two weeks. Airlines must pay back passengers’ cash no more than a week after the non-departure.

Given the backlog of millions of cancellations, and the millions more that the quarantine move will trigger, repayments are unlikely for several months.

How is the travel industry responding?

Abta, the trade association representing tour operators and travel agents, is appalled at the prospect. A spokesperson said: “Travel and tourism has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“But plans are already being discussed around how to enable customers to travel once travel restrictions are lifted.

“Abta believes strongly that any new measures should be proportionate, led by the best possible medical and scientific advice and able to swiftly adapt to take into account any changes in this advice.”

Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA’s parent company, IAG, said: “If there is a 14-day quarantine, I would not expect us to be doing any flying, or very little flying.”

Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators’ Association, said: “Airports cannot survive a further protracted period without passengers that would be the result of quarantine measures.”

She called for a weekly review of the policy, saying: “If the government believe quarantine is medically necessary, then it should be applied on a selective basis following the science, there should be a clear exit strategy.”

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), which says tens of thousands of jobs in aviation have already been lost since the coronavirus pandemic began, has demanded that firms are compensated to help them save jobs.

Brian Strutton, the general secretary, said: “It can’t be right that aviation employees should get sacked to pay for government safety restrictions.

“Government imposed restrictions should be compensated for by government. Otherwise airlines will be forced to carry out their threats of redundancies.”

Is there any alternative to quarantine for identifying carriers?

Yes, at least according to the Austrian authorities, which are already operating a 14-day quarantine policy. Passengers arriving at Vienna airport can avoid it by attending a medical centre near the terminal and undergoing a test for coronavirus.

Participants must pay €190 (£166) and wait for three hours for the results, but if they pass they have a “get out of jail free” card and need not self-isolate.

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Can flying ever be made safe in the era of coronavirus?

Pictures on social media showing passengers crammed on board an Aer Lingus flight from Belfast City airport to London Heathrow have raised concerns about social distancing on planes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The incident highlights the problem with re-starting aviation, known as “Project Lift-off”.

These are the key issues.

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What went wrong with the Aer Lingus flight?

Brian Ambrose, the chief executive of George Best Belfast City airport, told Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster: “For the month of April the average load was 20 per cent, growing to 30 per cent.”

At such levels there are relatively few problems at either the airport or on board the plane. But the construction industry in London has increased activity sharply since the start of May, and the load on the flight – 154 passengers on a 174-seat aircraft, or 89 per cent – was sharply increased, to the surprise of Aer Lingus and the airport.

An airline spokesperson said: “Aer Lingus is reviewing its processes and procedures applicable to the operation of this service.

”The safety and security of Aer Lingus’ customers and crew is our top priority and any process changes that are identified as being required will be implemented as a matter of urgency.“

What can airports and airlines do to minimise the risk of transmission of coronavirus?

Not much. Passenger aviation and social distancing are fundamentally incompatible.

Airports are constructed to process large numbers of passengers in a relatively small space, with a number of “pinch points” built in: at check-in, going through the security search area, at the departure gate and boarding the aircraft.

Airlines deliver reasonable fares by cramming in as many people as safely possible into a confined space and leaving them there for at least an hour.

The reality is that, as Project Lift-off gets under way, many people will see photographs and decide, “I simply don’t want anything to do with flying right now, thank you”. At a time when the public is being told not to visit friends and family, and restaurants are closed, they find it incomprehensible that people are mingling with strangers in extremely close proximity.

Others will judge that, while flying can never be entirely safe, they are prepared to accept a small amount of risk in return for the benefits  provided by air travel: enabling urgent family visits, making essential work trips possible, or, in time, to go on holiday.

More widely, millions of jobs rely on aviation – either directly or through the tourism that flying creates and the business generates.

This debate is at the heart of the blunt reality that re-starting the economy is at odds with limiting the spread of Covid-19.

A balance must be struck on the human cost – between the short-term harm that will inevitably come from greater interaction, and the longer-term damage caused by economic decline.

For people who must travel, what precautions are in place?

Airlines and airports are extremely keen to reassure passengers that flying is low risk. In the absence of a common international standard, different parts of the aviation industry are responding with their own strategies.

Air Canada has just announced the most comprehensive range of measures of any airline. Passengers are not allowed to travel without submitting to a temperature check. They must also wear face coverings while passing through the airport and on board. And no one in economy class will be seated immediately adjacent to another traveller, at least until 30 June.

Do these measures work?

“The new programme is designed to reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19,” Air Canada said in a statement. But that is not necessarily supported by international medical expertise. Starting with checks for high temperatures at airports, either on departure or arrival: “Temperature screening alone, at exit or entry, is not an effective way to stop international spread.”

That is the view of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which explains: “Infected individuals may be in incubation period, may not express apparent symptoms early on in the course of the disease, or may dissimulate fever through the use of antipyretics.

“Such measures require substantial investments for what may bear little benefits.”

Instead, says WHO, collect health declarations at arrival, with travellers’ contact details, so medical officials can perform contact tracing of incoming travellers.

What about face masks?

Public Health England says: “There’s very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of clinical settings”.

World Health Organisation warns they can create a “false sense of security, leading to potentially less adherence to other preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene”.

And on BBC Breakfast on 5 May, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “The evidence around the use of face coverings in amongst the general population is weak.

“We constantly keep that under review and if there are changes that we need to make to the guidance then we will make those changes. But for now there is no change to the guidance.”

What about keeping the middle seat empty?

Statistically, shrinking the number of passengers on an Airbus A320 from 174 to 116 cuts the risk, simply because it reduces the possible carriers of Covid-19. But in terms of social distancing, it has little effect; typically it will increase the space between passengers from 50cm to 1 metre. One airline chief executive says the way that air circulates on an aircraft means extra space is unlikely to make much difference – and that the high-efficiency filters deployed on planes eliminate the risk from most pathogens.

So why are these measures coming in?

To try to boost confidence. Airlines and airports recognise that there is enormous concern about flying in the time of coronavirus. They believe these steps will reassure anxious passengers, and are pressing for global agreement – in much the same way that internationally agreed standards are applied to aviation security.

What more can be done?

Many practical steps are happening in the background. Deeper cleaning at airports and on planes can certainly reduce risks. Procedures at the security checkpoint – in normal times, the occasion when normal people come into closest contact with complete strangers – are being smartened.

But the biggest steps that travellers, and aviation staff, can take are simple: keep washing their hands assiduously, and if they are feeling remotely symptomatic, don’t show up.

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