Saturday, June 19

An End to Empty Seats on Canada’s Airlines

Photos of empty airports have come to symbolize the head-spinning drop in air travel during the pandemic. But the more surprising illustration for me involves a now-crowded space.

The parking lots of rental car agencies near the Ottawa airport are now overstuffed with unwanted cars. So many of them have piled up since air travel has fallen by 90 percent in Canada that the unwanted rentals have overflowed into the vast parking lot of a nearby convention center.

Recently, Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been pushing to get more people back on their planes, urging politicians to substantially ease virus-related restrictions, including expanding border travel with the United States, as they move to restart additional routes later this month.

During recent testimony before the House of Commons health committee, officials from all of Canada’s major airlines played down the need to keep passengers apart and emphasized what they called a cascading or multilayered approach to making sure infections don’t spread aboard flights. That approach, they repeatedly said, includes taking into account the quality of the air filtration systems on planes.

In an email, Air Canada explained the end of seat blocking to me this way: “While we would all like a single measure that reduces risk, we are left to use a combination of approaches to mitigate risk as far as practical.”

It added: “It is very important that people understand how efficiently aircraft ventilation works to refresh air regularly onboard every 2 to 3 minutes, which is a key reason there has been no reports of disease outbreak clusters onboard flights.”

But scientists, public health authorities and physicians seem less enthusiastic about a return to jampacked cabins and, for that matter, about moving large numbers of people around the country.

“From a public health perspective the physical distancing is one of the key public health measures,” Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer of Canada, said at a news conference when asked about the airlines’ new plan. “Physical distancing is our recommendation.”

Dr. David N. Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed that having multiple measures can lead to greater overall control of infections and he added that he’s been surprised by the lack of outbreaks clustered around flights.

“That said, at the end of the day, proximity and crowding are important factors in facilitating disease transmission, so maintaining as much space as possible between individuals and requiring masks when space can’t be maintained seems quite common-sensical to me,” he said. “I can’t imagine that airplanes have some magical property that makes droplet borne transmission difficult if people are packed closely together.”

Dr. Cory Neudorf a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s medical school and the medical director for health surveillance at Saskatchewan Health Authority, told me in an email that viruses can still pass between passengers even with the most vigorous filtration.

“Airplanes try to mitigate this through frequent air circulation and use of HEPA filters, but yes, you can still be infected if you breathe in the particles on their way to the filters,” he wrote in the email.

He added that limiting the number of people aboard planes cuts the risk of transmission in other ways.

“Fewer people in a given shared space means fewer people touching shared surfaces, so risk is reduced, especially if you don’t have someone using the same arm rest or other surfaces as they walk down aisles, use the washroom etc.,” he wrote.

Air Canada will allow economy class passengers on flights that are nearly full to rebook at no cost. That, of course, assumes travel flexibility and the availability of flights with lots of empty seats.

Moris Moreno recently produced a record for The Times of air travel from Seattle to Boston with his family, although the middle seats were empty when he took to the skies.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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