IATA is opposing any regulation that would require airlines to leave empty seats between passengers, arguing that such a measure would severely affect operators’ economic prospects and yet deliver no “significant improvement in safety” for travellers.

Keeping middle seats empty on narrowbodies with standard 3-3 cabin layouts will reduce capacity by a third, while the practice will typically lead to a 40% capacity reduction on long-haul jets, said IATA chief economist Brian Pearce during a media briefing on 5 May. On regional jets and turboprops – typically featuring 2-2 cabin layouts – the measure would halve capacity.

Overall, Pearce says, airlines would be able to use just 62% of the industry’s available capacity. In 2019, carriers needed – on average – load factors of 77% to break even.

Out of 122 airlines analysed by IATA, only four would be able to operate profitably, Pearce says.

If regulations to leave seats empty were to be introduced, Pearce expects that “most airlines will really struggle” and ticket prices would be “significantly higher” in the long term, compared with pre-crisis levels.

IATA predicts that average fares would need to be increased 43-54% for airlines to break even.

Meanwhile, the airline association says the practice of leaving seats empty has not been proven to reduce the risk of infection on board aircraft, even though the measure has been introduced by a number of airlines.

IATA’s medical advisor, David Powell, said during the briefing that the risk of coronavirus transmission on board aircraft “appears to be low”.

The association has studied flights of 18 airlines and found three cases in which crew members were infected by passengers, and another four cases of virus transmission between pilots. But Powell says there was “no evidence” of virus transmission between passengers on board aircraft.

Powell suspects that relatively high air-recirculation rates on board aircraft (compared with air-conditioning systems in offices), use of hospital-style HEPA filters, and forward-facing seats, which limit opportunity for face-to-face contact, all help keep low the infection risk during flight.

IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac argues that while keeping seats empty would have “an enormous financial and operational impact on airlines”, the practice would bring “no additional guarantee of safety to avoid virus transmission”.

He asks: “Is [it] necessary to implement a measure that would significantly [affect] the economics of the industry and ability of passengers to travel in good conditions without bringing an additional safety improvement?”

IATA advocates the use of face masks by passengers and crew on board aircraft, alongside additional measures to reduce infection risks. These include temperature screening for passengers and staff, adjusted boarding and disembarkation processes to reduce contact, simplified catering, limited movement in aircraft cabin, and more intensive cabin-cleaning.