Airlines hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic are itching to get passengers back on board, but social distancing rules are running up against the airlines’ needs to put full planes in the air in order to turn a profit.
And that problem goes double for discount carriers whose passengers aren’t willing or able to pay more to keep middle seats empty.
So says Edmonton-based Flair Airlines CEO Jim Scott who’s seeing demand for air travel from Canadians climb higher.
“Passengers were scared to fly until the economy started to open up and about ten days ago,” said Scott, speaking to BNN Bloomberg on Tuesday. “From a discount carrier point of view, we had a flood of people come to us and our flights became full. We went from maybe a 30 per cent load factor to 90 and sometimes 100 per cent. So we had to deal with the new reality is how do you deal with that many people on an airplane.”
Flair flew almost one million passengers in 2019 and was gearing up to expand its routes in the Atlantic provinces before the coronavirus hit and virtually shut down service, as government regulations ramped up for inter-provincial travel and Canadians grew more wary of air travel.
But Scott says the tide seems to be turning, and his company is looking to the federal government for more clarity on when the border between the US and Canada may open up.
As for social distancing on planes, Scott said it was an easier call when demand was low and aircraft were flying more than half-empty anyway, but the problem becomes more apparent with fuller planes.
“Discount carriers tend to feel it first, and we had to look at the two options. One would be to raise prices by 40 per cent for everybody so that you could have a middle seat [empty] or the other one that we chose is to divide the aircraft into two categories: one is what we call our comfort seat choice where for a $49 seat selection fee you can have an empty seat next to you or you can have just the normal seat selection for $20 and have somebody next to you,” Scott said.
Scott said that so far, customers have been mostly opting for the cheaper option and flying with someone else in the seat beside them.
“Customers have a choice and they are choosing, but I think with the wearing of the masks and the sanitation efforts they’re not choosing the middle seat empty,” he said. “If [the empty middle seat] came for free or perceived free I think they’d take it but not if they’re given a choice.”
Scott says disinfecting Flair’s airplanes in-between flights has been a learning process, with employees at first taking about an hour to fully clean an interior but with the use of disinfecting foggers crews have reduced the time to about ten minutes.