Airlines in EU will not have to leave empty seats

Passengers are still required to wear masks on board

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive will say on Wednesday that airlines will not have to leave the middle seat empty but passengers will have to wear masks on board and in airports as travel amid the coronavirus crisis gradually resumes.

The non-binding recommendations are part of a wider set of proposals to salvage the ailing tourism industry, which in normal times represents some 10% of the EU's economic output and employs almost 12% of the bloc’s workforce.

According to a European Commission document, the executive will propose vouchers for canceled flights or holidays remain valid for at least a year with protection against bankruptcies so people will accept them instead of demanding full refunds from cash-strapped airlines and travel firms.

In this Monday, April 27, 2020, file photo, provided by Vince Warburton, passengers get off an American Airlines flight after they landed at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. (Vince Warburton via AP)

The Commission will say airlines need to limit contamination risks, which could be achieved by steps such as using hospital-grade air filtering on planes, using personal protective equipment and limiting passenger movements.

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"Mandating the use of empty seats to increase physical distancing in aircraft is therefore not recommended," according to the Commission document, which was seen by Reuters before the official publication on Wednesday.

Checking in, dropping off and picking up luggage should be reorganised to avoid crowds.

Airlines have raised concerns that measures to slow the spread of the pandemic could blight profitability long after any travel restrictions end.

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which estimated the crisis could cost airlines a total of $314 billion, has advised companies to check passenger temperatures, to collect personal details for any contact tracing and to clean and disinfect terminals and equipment.

KLM Boeing 747 Jumbojet airplane taking off from Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam in The Netherlands. (iStock)

It recommended facemasks be worn during flights but did not recommend blocking the middle seats.

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Some U.S. airlines have already implemented distancing measures, with some blocking middle seats, pausing automatic upgrades and changing the boarding process.

The EU executive refused to suspend a law giving passengers the right to a full cash refund if a flight has been canceled.

But it will say companies should make vouchers more attractive by giving them a longer validity period, offering the same conditions as the original booking or possibly even giving them a higher value.

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Such vouchers should also be transferable and automatically refundable if not redeemed after a year, the Commission will say.

Air France Boeing 777 passenger plane parked at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China. (iStock)

For train transport, the EU executive will say social distancing should be applied via increased frequency and train capacity. Wearing masks in trains and at stations should be required, peak hour travel should be discouraged, doors should open automatically and disinfecting gel should be available.

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Similar rules will apply to other public transport and cruise ships. The Commission will say the number of passengers on cruises should be reduced and vessels must have rooms available for quarantine if needed.

The guidelines, which do not specify a date for resuming travel, are not legally binding. It is up to the member states to follow them.

The European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Center for Disease Control will publish further safety protocols for airlines in the coming weeks.

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