EU says air travel will need social distancing, U.S. airlines taking their own steps

BRUSSELS/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The European Commission will next month present a set of rules for the safe reopening of air travel when coronavirus lockdowns end, including social distancing in airports and planes, while some U.S. airlines are taking their own protective measures.

FILE PHOTO: A woman passes a departure board at Dulles International Airport a day after U.S. President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions on flights from Europe to the United States to contain the spread of the coronavirus, in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean said on Wednesday that measures under consideration would include the wearing of masks and disinfection of planes and airports.

“All this should be part of those guidelines and probably by mid-May we can put forward this strategy we are working on,” Valean said on Twitter.

The move came as debate heats up in the United States, the world’s busiest domestic market, on how to apply rules on social distancing or protective gear to air travel.

It is unclear if the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to compel passengers or flight crews to wear face coverings on airplanes.

Last week, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told a pilots’ union that the agency and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to update guidance for airline flight crews amid concerns from pilots, but regulators are not mandating new safety requirements.

Some U.S. airlines have implemented their own measures including blocking middle seats, pausing automatic upgrades and changing the boarding process.

Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) warned on Wednesday of a choppy recovery in air travel that would ultimately depend on people feeling safe.

“When you ask people, what’s the most important thing to get them to start travelling again, it’s going to be confidence in their safety,” Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said on a conference call.

Delta is also encouraging passengers and employees to wear protective gear, Bastian said, noting that at least 80% of its customers now wear face masks when they travel.

In Canada, regulators started requiring passengers on Monday to wear a non-medical mask or face-covering during the boarding process and flights.


In Europe, Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary has described proposals for planes to fly with empty middle seats when the coronavirus travel restrictions end as “mad,” saying they would be “hopelessly ineffective” as well as unaffordable.

Instead, the company backs the introduction of mandatory temperature checks and masks for passengers and crew when flights resume.

Airlines have raised concerns that measures to slow the spread of the pandemic could blight profitability long after the travel restrictions end. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that the crisis could cost airlines a total of $314 billion.

The EU’s Valean said it was impossible to say when the industry could resume operations but noted that she expected social distancing requirements to remain in place for as long as there is no COVID-19 treatment or vaccine.

“We expect the crisis to stay with us and the virus to stay with us,” she said.

Reporting by Marine Strauss in Brussels and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by David Goodman, Gareth Jones and Richard Chang

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