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An End to Empty Seats on Canada’s Airlines

Photos of empty airports have come to symbolize the head-spinning drop in air travel during the pandemic. But the more surprising illustration for me involves a now-crowded space.

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Credit…Carlos Osorio/Reuters

The parking lots of rental car agencies near the Ottawa airport are now overstuffed with unwanted cars. So many of them have piled up since air travel has fallen by 90 percent in Canada that the unwanted rentals have overflowed into the vast parking lot of a nearby convention center.

Recently, Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been pushing to get more people back on their planes, urging politicians to substantially ease virus-related restrictions, including expanding border travel with the United States, as they move to restart additional routes later this month.

“This is hundreds of times worse than 9/11, SARS, or the global financial crisis — quite frankly combined,” Calin Rovinescu, the chief executive of Air Canada, told the Financial Post in an interview.

But at the same time that Mr. Rovinescu and his counterparts are working to get more people back in the air, they’ve made one change that gives some health officials pause.

On Canada Day, both Air Canada and WestJet ended what the industry calls “seat blocking,” leaving a vacant seat between passengers. Though that gap was far short of the minimum recommended distance of 2 meters, it was still a gap.

So while health officials are urging Canadians to keep their distance as various measures are eased, airlines are putting them in close contact in an enclosed space for flights that can last hours.

During recent testimony before the House of Commons health committee, officials from all of Canada’s major airlines played down the need to keep passengers apart and emphasized what they called a cascading or multilayered approach to making sure infections don’t spread aboard flights. That approach, they repeatedly said, includes taking into account the quality of the air filtration systems on planes.

Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

In an email, Air Canada explained the end of seat blocking to me this way: “While we would all like a single measure that reduces risk, we are left to use a combination of approaches to mitigate risk as far as practical.”

It added: “It is very important that people understand how efficiently aircraft ventilation works to refresh air regularly onboard every 2 to 3 minutes, which is a key reason there has been no reports of disease outbreak clusters onboard flights.”

But scientists, public health authorities and physicians seem less enthusiastic about a return to jampacked cabins and, for that matter, about moving large numbers of people around the country.

“From a public health perspective the physical distancing is one of the key public health measures,” Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer of Canada, said at a news conference when asked about the airlines’ new plan. “Physical distancing is our recommendation.”

Dr. David N. Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed that having multiple measures can lead to greater overall control of infections and he added that he’s been surprised by the lack of outbreaks clustered around flights.

“That said, at the end of the day, proximity and crowding are important factors in facilitating disease transmission, so maintaining as much space as possible between individuals and requiring masks when space can’t be maintained seems quite common-sensical to me,” he said. “I can’t imagine that airplanes have some magical property that makes droplet borne transmission difficult if people are packed closely together.”

Dr. Cory Neudorf a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s medical school and the medical director for health surveillance at Saskatchewan Health Authority, told me in an email that viruses can still pass between passengers even with the most vigorous filtration.

“Airplanes try to mitigate this through frequent air circulation and use of HEPA filters, but yes, you can still be infected if you breathe in the particles on their way to the filters,” he wrote in the email.

He added that limiting the number of people aboard planes cuts the risk of transmission in other ways.

“Fewer people in a given shared space means fewer people touching shared surfaces, so risk is reduced, especially if you don’t have someone using the same arm rest or other surfaces as they walk down aisles, use the washroom etc.,” he wrote.

Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Air Canada will allow economy class passengers on flights that are nearly full to rebook at no cost. That, of course, assumes travel flexibility and the availability of flights with lots of empty seats.

Moris Moreno recently produced a record for The Times of air travel from Seattle to Boston with his family, although the middle seats were empty when he took to the skies.

Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
  • Balarama Holness is a Montreal educator, broadcaster, law student, former professional Canadian football player, and one of the leaders of Canada’s current Black rights and anti-racism movement. He told Dan Bilefsky he aspires to be a “Canadian Obama.”

  • Justin Trudeau is at the center of another conflict-of-interest investigation — his third since he became Prime Minister in 2015. This one is over his family’s connections to the international WE Charity, which his government had awarded a no-bid contract to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to student volunteers. This week, it was revealed that Mr. Trudeau’s mother and brother were paid more than 280,000 Canadian dollars over four years by the charity for speaking at its events.

  • For those feeling stir-crazy under coronavirus travel restrictions, you can travel — virtually — along the 360-mile Tshiuetin railroad in rural Quebec, from Sept-Îles to Schefferville. Partly owned and wholly operated by the three First Nations that it connects, the line is “a symbol of reclamation and defiance for those it serves,” writes Chloë Ellingson. Her photos are wonderful.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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