WestJet will end physical distancing on flights starting July 1

11 months ago 50
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WestJet Airlines Ltd. is ending its seat distancing policy on board its aircraft starting July 1, raising health concerns amid a pandemic that has devastated the travel industry.

The airline has blocked the purchase of middle seats and adjacent seats for the past few months to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With domestic air travel starting to nudge higher, WestJet said Friday it will revert to health recommendations from the International Air Transport Association.

The trade group called last month for an end to in-flight physical distancing rules, proposing a range of measures including some that run counter to federal government policies.

1:43 WestJet announces sweeping changes including more than 3,300 job cuts

WestJet announces sweeping changes including more than 3,300 job cuts

Transport Canada listed physical distancing among the “key points” in preventing the spread of the virus as part of a guide issued to the aviation industry in April.

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“Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing,” the document states.

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Health experts have highlighted the ongoing risks of crowded airports and travelling in packed cabins, but note that hospital-grade air filters, mandatory face coverings and routine disinfection mitigate the hazard.

“Once it’s in the cabin, it’s difficult to stop air moving around,” said Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health.

The potential for spreading the disease to new communities after touchdown marks another concern, as temperature screenings miss infected travellers who are asymptomatic, he said — particularly dangerous with a virus with a long hibernation period.

1:50 WestJet adding more flights in July, but where are Albertans permitted to travel?

WestJet adding more flights in July, but where are Albertans permitted to travel?

However, the HEPA air filters used on most planes effectively control airborne bacteria and viruses, capturing more than 99 per cent of airborne particles, according to Joseph Allen, professor at Harvard University and director of its public health school’s Healthy Buildings program.

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In line with federal directives, WestJet conducts pre-boarding temperature checks and requires masks on board. It also implemented enhanced aircraft cleaning and scaled back its in-flight service in late March, cutting out hot drinks, hot meals and fresh food.

Online booking will return to normal on Wednesday, WestJet said in an email.

“Moving forward, our cabin crew are able to assist should there be space to accommodate and we encourage guests to discuss seating arrangements with them once onboard,” said spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

Canadians are beginning to brave air travel again as confinement measures lift, though Manitoba and the Maritimes still have strong restrictions on interprovincial travel in place while other provinces discourage it.

Swoop, a budget airline owned by WestJet, added eight weekly flights in June with 12 more coming in July after the carrier cut capacity to a single line of flight per day — Halifax-Hamilton-Edmonton-Abbotsford and back.

“We’re in this minus 95 per cent mode right now,” Swoop president Charles Duncan said in an interview. “It doesn’t get much worse than this.”

Hope is on the horizon, however.

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“At the height of it, it was common to have under 20 people on a plane. But from Vancouver just now I brought in 65. Earlier in the day from Edmonton to Vancouver we had over 100,” said WestJet flight attendant Chris Rauenbusch, president of CUPE Local 4070.

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© 2020 The Canadian Press

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