Aurigny has defended its policy of seating passengers travelling from the UK next to each other on sparsely populated flights.
UK government guidelines recommend that where balance allows airlines ‘enable social distancing among passengers of different households’.
Flights between Guernsey and Southampton on a 72-seat ATR have typically been carrying around 20 people.
Aurigny’s booking system loads the plane from the middle first. Passengers are not allowed to re-seat themselves elsewhere once they have boarded as some airlines do, because of track and trace requirements, Aurigny says.
The States-owned airline says passengers can pay to book a specific seat – but that does not prevent someone being allocated or choosing a seat next to them.
The policy contrasts with measures implemented before take off and on landing – such as baggage retrieval, where passengers must immediately resume social distancing.
The situation was thrown into sharp relief when a passenger with a compromised immune system was seated next to other passengers on a flight, one of whom later tested positive for Covid 19.
After a break to see family in the UK where she had scrupulously socially distanced whenever out in public, Business Manager of the Blonde Hedgehog, Tracey Farquhar-Beck, travelled back to Guernsey on 28th September.
Ms Farquhar-Beck, who has asthma and a compromised immune system, was horrified to find herself suddenly cheek by jowl with strangers.
She had paid for a seat at the back of the plane by herself but lost that position when the aircraft was changed.
‘Not only did I have people all around me, but I also had a complete stranger sitting in the seat next to me! This was the closest, physically, I had been to someone outside of my family since leaving Alderney.
‘Without any hope of maintaining social distance a few bemused passengers queried our seating arrangements with the flight attendant but we were told we had to seat in the allocated seating. With worldwide government warnings that maintaining a distance of at least one metre, if not more, from each other was absolutely essential to avoid transmission of coronavirus, it seemed incredulous that Aurigny did not allocate seats further apart on a mostly empty flight.
‘I spent 35 minutes in total panic and got off the plane feeling totally distressed.’
Later that day Ms Farquhar-Beck was informed by the track and trace team that she had been seating ‘very near’ to a traveller who had tested positive for Covid-19.
Adding insult to injury, she had cut short her trip by 10 days in order to return to Alderney before the South West of England became a category A country, so she would only have to isolate for seven days. As she had been sitting near an infected person, 14 day isolation was now mandatory.
‘The whole point of the UK government-enforced social distancing measures are to curb transmission, protect the vulnerable, and prevent saturation of the NHS. In Guernsey and Alderney, the objective is the same, to contain the disease.
‘I am furious at Aurigny’s lack of respect for mine and the other passengers fundamental human right to make an informed decision about my own wellbeing.’
The issue of social distancing on planes has become an international one, with different airlines employing various different policies.
EasyJet allows passengers to move seats once boarding has taken place. British Airlines allows passengers to select their seat free of charge 24 hours before check in. Emirates has introduced a pre-allocated seat system so that vacant seats are placed between individual passengers or family groups.
Unless a specific seat has been booked, Aurigny’s seats are allocated when a customer checks in. The Aurigny system is generally to fill the aircraft from the centre outwards and it assumes the flight will fill up.
However, within the aircraft booking system there are many options for loading the plane and spacing individuals or groups, especially if lightly loaded. Whole rows or columns of seats can be blocked out.
One Bailiwick airline professional suggested that with a load of around 14 , all the aisle seats – columns C and D – could have been blocked off, giving every passenger a window seat. Given the low passenger load, the expert suggested, travellers could also have been put on odd rows down one side and even rows on the other, giving even more distance between passengers.
Aurigny says there is no government regulation that requires or even recommends that passengers be spread out in the cabin.
But they have taken other steps to protect passengers and crew – measures also not mandated by the authorities – such as the wearing of masks and sanitising each aircraft every day with a long acting anti-viral disinfectant.
‘During the pandemic we have had many flights that have been full and it is made clear when booking and on our website that you will not be socially distanced on board and that you may be sitting next to someone who is not in your travel group. Therefore, customers should wear masks and because of the current restrictions by Public Health (Guernsey) we are required to ensure that they stay in their allocated seat for contact tracing purposes.
‘Seats are allocated automatically when a customer checks in. The seating allocation assumes that the aircraft will fill up so starts in the middle and works outwards – to achieve an appropriate weight/balance if the aircraft is reasonably full.
‘Aurigny is confident that in the circumstances we have handled the coronavirus crisis well. As far as we are aware there have been no cases where we have carried passengers who have later tested positive that have infected one of our customers or any of our crew.’