The CEO of Ryanair, one of the world's biggest airlines, says it won't fly if middle seats have to stay empty for 'idiotic' social-distancing rules
Ryanair's CEO says the airline will not fly if it is forced to keep middle seats empty to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael O'Leary told the Financial Times that the idea would be "entirely ineffective," making it impossible for the airline to make money while also not keeping passengers far enough apart anyway.
"We can't make money on 66% load factors," he said, adding: "The middle seat doesn't deliver any social distancing, so it's kind of an idiotic idea that doesn't achieve anything anyway."
Some airlines have said they will keep empty seats between passengers, and the European Union said social-distancing rules would need to be in place. Ryanair is an Irish airline.
Ryanair, like most other airlines, has had to ground most of its flights, but O'Leary said it expected most flights to resume this year should a middle-seat rule not be put in place.
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The CEO of Ryanair, one of the world's largest airlines, said his planes wouldn't fly if the airline had to keep the middle seat empty to comply with what he described as an "idiotic" social-distancing proposal during the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael O'Leary told the Financial Times that such action would be "entirely ineffective" — even as experts proposed it and some airlines have agreed to it at least temporarily as a way to keep social distancing in place as countries start to reopen and more flights resume.
O'Leary said the Irish airline's plans to start flying more would be ruined by "some entirely ineffective social-distancing measures like having middle seats empty — because if middle seats are empty, we're not returning to flying at all."
He said the airline had told the Irish government that if it tried to impose such a rule, then "either the government pays for the middle seat or we won't fly."
O'Leary also said that the airline could not make a profit by having so few people on planes and that leaving only middle seats open would still not leave people far enough apart to create effective social distancing anyway.
"We can't make money on 66% load factors," he said. "Even if you do that, the middle seat doesn't deliver any social distancing, so it's kind of an idiotic idea that doesn't achieve anything anyway."
The low-cost airline, which flies primarily in Europe, is the world's largest airline by the number of routes, and in 2019 it ranked as the world's fifth-biggest airline by the number of seats available to passengers.
'If social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over'
The idea that planes should fly without a middle-seat passenger has been recommended by analysts, and the European Union's transport commissioner, Adina Valean, said some social-distancing rules would need to be in place in airports and planes, though she did not specify whether there would be rules about middle seats.
The long-haul airline Emirates this week said it would keep empty seats between individuals and groups on flights, while the US airline Delta said it would leave middle seats empty at least through June 30 to "help customers and employees practice social distancing."
Alexandre de Juniac, the head of International Air Transport Association — the airline industry's global trade body — told Reuters earlier this month that some governments might end up requiring airlines to keep the middle seat empty on flights.
But he has also warned that social-distancing measures could particularly harm low-cost airlines, as they would be forced to increase ticket prices.
"So it means that if social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over," he said.
It is not yet clear how effective removing the middle passenger would actually be for social distancing.
The BBC reported that, on an average plane, you would need to be more than four seats apart from other people to be the recommended 6 feet, or 2 meters, away from one another.
Health experts have been supportive of removing the middle seat in the short term, even as they acknowledged that it may not be economically sustainable in the long term, the BBC added.
Like the rest of the industry, Ryanair's flights have been almost wiped out by the virus. As of March, Ryanair was operating fewer than 20 flights a day — less than 1% of its usual daily average of 2,500.
REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo
O'Leary said the airline expected to run about 40% of its flights in July should air travel resume by then, and he estimated that about 50% to 60% of the seats would be filled.
He said he expected the airline to run about 80% of its flights by September — but said these plans would be ruined if the airline couldn't fill the middle seat.
The pandemic has already forced some airlines to shut, is expected to cost airlines hundreds of billions of dollars, and could cause low-cost fares to disappear.
But O'Leary is positive about his own airline's future, expecting normal traffic to return by summer 2021 and for Ryanair to be fueled by rivals collapsing.
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April 23, 2020