A pilots' group says airlines should be allowed to relax physical distancing on planes if all crew and passengers wear masks.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA) today announced its full support of health and safety alternatives to leaving the middle seats empty as backed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and announced by the Qantas group today.

"As a safety-led organisation, we also want to ensure that our members and the travelling public can get back into the air as quickly as possible, and at an affordable cost," the association's president, Andrew Ridling, said.

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Rather than leaving valuable and much needed middle seats empty as part of social-distancing measures, the association instead supported the evidence-based advice of IATA's medical professionals.

Qantas and Jetstar will give masks to all passengers and implement other measures but will no longer leave an empty seat between passengers to provide a level of social distancing on board. The airline says it is impractical, unnecessary and would result in higher airfares.

Air NZ says it is working with health authorities on physical distancing but for now is flying with reduced capacity of around 65 per cent on jets and 50 per cent on turbo-prop aircraft.

A spokewoman said it had worked with the Ministry of Health to introduce a range of measures on the ground and in the air to create a safe travel environment for our customers and crew.

She said said the airline supported a review of social distancing requirements on board aircraft, with a view to returning to normal seating arrangements as soon as possible.

''Removing social distancing will help New Zealand's tourism industry get back on its feet and support our struggling regional economies.''

The airline says on its website there are no official requirements for the wearing of face masks.

''While it's not mandatory, you may see some of our crew wearing face masks. If you would like to wear a face mask you are welcome to bring one for your journey. Both cloth and surgical masks are acceptable for use inflight,'' it advises passengers.

''When travelling internationally, you also may be required by local law to wear a face-covering in the airport where your trip begins, where it ends or where you connect.''


Because of higher operating costs, the airline had warned that there are fewer low-price fares available on its network which is slowly expanding throughout the country.

Other airlines, including Chathams Air, is providing masks but also is flying with reduced capacity.

The pilots' group says it would support wearing of face coverings for passengers and crew while on board aircraft, in conjunction with other health measures at the departure gate.

"Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is extremely low.
The association believes that the wearing of face coverings for passengers and crew will reduce this already low risk, while avoiding the possibility of dramatic cost increases to air travel with seats going empty," said Ridling.

As well as health and safety for travel on domestic routes, the association is working with industry, government and its Australian counterparts towards the reopening of the transtasman aviation market.

IATA has given several likely reasons why Covid-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more onboard transmission, and is different from other modes of public transport.

They are passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions, seats provide a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin, air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin, and air-flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments and High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation.