“No social distancing as advertised and promised … Don’t overbook the flights!” Suria Engelbrecht tweeted on Sunday evening, along with a photo of a very full plane, shortly after her FlySafair flight from Durban landed at Cape Town International Airport.
“So much emphasis is being put on social distancing at airports, restaurants and shops, but none of these measures are in place on a plane. Airlines should respect the distancing rules as all the other industries are doing. FlySafair allows you to block the middle seat, but for an extra R750 – if one is available, that is.
“If not, they just pack us all in together,” she said.
Airlines are legally entitled to do that, even during a pandemic, because commercial aircraft are fitted with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters – similar to those used in hospital operating theatres – which trap microscopic organisms such as bacteria and viruses as air circulates through the plane’s air-conditioning unit in a continuous cycle.
Responding to Engelbrecht’s comments, FlySafair’s chief marketing officer Kirby Gordon said the airline had noted that some people expected to be able to block the middle seat at no extra cost, in order to avoid sitting next to a fellow passenger.
“I have attempted to address that misconception by means of an automated SMS this [Monday] morning,” he said.
The airline originally marketed its “block the seat next to you” option to business passengers wanting extra space.
“The law on air travel during this time permits us to fill aircraft up, with the exception of a single row of seats, which must be kept open as an ‘isolation space’, should someone feel ill during flight,” said Gordon.
“Very few, if any, airlines around the world are blocking out middle seats because it’s not feasible.
“If the restriction on capacity was imposed across all airlines, we’d be forced to sell tickets at a higher cost to make flying viable.
“The higher cost would drive down demand and it’s quite possible that we’d just have to stay grounded because we would lose more money through unprofitable operations than we would by remaining hunkered down.”
Engelbrecht did not make Sunday’s flight booking herself – it was made by a travel agent – so she didn’t see the “middle seat block” option on the airline’s website.
But if someone does not pay extra to block a middle seat, it will be sold, said Gordon. If both the window and aisle passengers opt to do so when booking online, both pay an extra R750.
“What we do is try to maintain distance for as long as possible by not allowing passengers to check into middle seats online before departure – unless they have specifically pre-booked these seats – so all aisle and window seats are booked before middle seats are allocated, which is then only done by airport staff.”
Gordon conceded that many people were confused by having to adhere to strict physical distancing in the airport and during boarding, only to find themselves sitting right next to a fellow passenger on the plane.
As for mask-wearing compliance, cabin crew have had to enforce this on board “quite actively”, said Gordon. “And there have been a handful of cases where we’ve had to issue a ‘captain’s letter’ to individuals to prompt compliance.”
Most of those who refuse to wear a mask on board complain of discomfort or difficulty breathing,” he said.
“We’ve stocked aircraft with the ‘lighter’ medical masks to provide to customers who feel that their own fabric masks are too stifling.”
But in a least one case, that was not enough. “A passenger who still refused to wear a mask was greeted by police on arrival and he will not be permitted on future FlySafair flights.”
When FlySafair’s planes first took to the skies again in mid-June, just 18 flights were operating daily. The airline is now operating 22 to 24 flights a day, but that’s still drastically down on pre-lockdown operations of about 84 flights daily.
And most flights are little more than two-thirds full.
“The biggest challenges have been incredibly slow demand and managing customers’ expectations,” said Gordon.
“It’s been a massive communication challenge to ensure that they allow themselves enough time, that they arrive with the correct documents and provisions, and that they understand and adhere to new processes – all this, coupled with increased anxiety on their part.
“In this new environment, it’s hard to raise the experience above an ordeal.”