The body representing global airlines came out against leaving middle seats empty on aircraft on Tuesday, as debate intensifies over how to get airlines flying while respecting social-distancing rules in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Brian Pearce, chief economist at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said most airlines would have been unable to make money last year if a third of the seats had been removed on the industry's most-flown models.
In April, IATA director-general Alexandre de Juniac said leaving the middle seat empty was among the likely conditions for a resumption of air travel to be discussed with governments around the world.
De Juniac denied that IATA had changed its stance because of the damage flying two-thirds full would do to airline profitability. The point is to see whether it is necessary to implement measures, de Juniac said.
The switch away from leaving the middle seat empty was based on scientific evidence, IATA's medical advisor David Powell said.
Nobody has demonstrated that having the middle seat empty reduces the chance of transmitting covid-19 from one person to another, he said.
IATA would instead be recommending wearing masks and face coverings onboard as part of a range of measures including screening passengers before flying to make sure they did not have a fever, plus enhanced cleaning procedures and limited movement in the cabin, as the basis for restarting flying safely.
Airlines such as Germany's Lufthansa and Hungary's low cost Wizz Air have already made it compulsory for passengers to wear face masks on flights.
Medical advisor Powell also said the recycled air that is circulated on passenger jets was not a cause for concern because in modern jets it was treated by the same sort of filter used in operating theatres.
Governments across the world are intervening to prop up airlines as estimated revenue losses from the coronavirus pandemic have climbed to US$314 billion, the IATA said last month, with many of the world's airplanes in storage.
European flights have all but come to a standstill during the coronavirus pandemic. While there is no visibility on when travel restrictions will ease, airlines are considering how to safely restart services and give passengers confidence to fly.
Months without revenues is threatening to force some airlines out of business.
Britain's Virgin Atlantic said earlier on Tuesday that it would cut 3,150 jobs as it battles to survive, adding to the up to 12,000 jobs British Airways said last week it could shed and putting pressure on regulators to agree rules to help a quick restart when the health conditions allow.
IATA said it was working with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations aviation agency, governments and the World Health Organization on new rules which would apply internationally.
ICAO could make an announcement on mandatory face masks on flights and other measures in June, IATA's de Juniac said.