Airlines defy on-board distancing

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Health Minister Bent Høie was none too happy when he boarded a Norwegian Air flight to Stavanger last weekend and found it almost as full as in pre-Corona times. Only a few middle seats were left empty, as required under state Corona containment measures.

No one is supposed to be sitting in the middle seats on arlines flying around Norway, but the airlines are protesting. PHOTO: Norwegian Air

“It wasn’t a good situation and it’s not supposed to be like that,” Høie told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after his flight from Oslo last Friday afternoon. He was heading for a long-sought weekend at home to celebrate the 17th of May holiday, after some of the most intense weeks ever for government leaders.

“I spoke with other passengers who were uneasy because the rules weren’t being followed,” Høie said. “We have given very clear guidelines to the airlines that we expect them to follow.”

Høie had an empty seat next to him and said he didn’t feel unsafe, but claims others did.  Norwegian Air, which recently avoided bankruptcy after qualifying for NOK 3 billion in state aid and loan guarantees, claimed that “we can’t throw people off the plane who have reserved seats.”

A Norwegian Air spokesman apologized that some passengers “were placed in a middle seat even though they weren’t part of a family booking or had chosen to sit there.” Andreas Hjørnholm told NRK, however, that the airline is facing an entirely new challenge and they were checking to see what went wrong.

Filters clear the air
Hjørnholm added that the risk of infection is no higher on board than it is elsewhere. “On the contrary,” Hjørnholm said, “all of Norwegian’s aircraft are equipped with so-called HEPA air filters that cleanse the air for most all bacteria and virus.” He said the airline had also imposed other infection-control measures to help make passengers feel more secure.

Høie wasn’t entirely satisfied and said he’d ask Transport Minister Knut Arild Hareide to call the airlines in for another meeting, at which he’d deliver the message that if they don’t follow the government’s guidelines they’ll be converted to law. Then it will be illegal for the airlines to not comply.

The national employers’ organization for the airline, NHO Luftfart, objects to the demand for empty middle seats. NHO’s Torbjørn Lothe claimed that commercial airline service won’t be able to take off if it can only offer 66 percent of its capacity.

Rules will be ‘harmonized’ with EU
Only a few flights are currently operating among Norway’s larger cities, chartered by the government to maintain transport infrastructure. With flights still cancelled in and out of Norway, Norwegians are expected to spend summer holidays within the country this year. Then the airlines claim they’ll need to offer adequate capacity that can generate profits.

Lothe asked for a meeting of his own with Transport Minister Hareide, to encourage him to scrap the empty-seat requirement that’s been in place since April 28. Norway is the only Scandinavian country to impose such a requirement. Airlines SAS and Widerøe want to fly as full as possible too, but their request wasn’t granted, at least not yet.

“It’s important that the airlines follow the current rules, out of consideration for both passengers and cabin crew,” Hareide told NRK. “They must feel that it’s safe to fly.” He conceded, however, that Norway’s rules will be “harmonized ” with the EU’s when cross-border airline travel resumes.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund