The authorities in Spain, where coronavirus cases have fallen and a gradual deescalation is underway, are now concerned that international travel could cause a new spike in infections.
In a bid to prevent a fresh Covid-19 crisis in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, the government has instituted self-quarantine orders for international travelers and it would also like to limit airline passenger seat occupancy.
But these travel restrictions have been met with opposition from the tourism industry, which is already reeling from the effects of the ongoing coronavirus lockdown.
Airlines are refusing to leave seats unfilled because it is not profitable, while the hotel industry has complained about the 14-day quarantine for international travelers that will go into effect on Friday, saying it will further damage tourism.
Health authorities would like to force airlines to space out passengers, which would mean operating only partially full flights. Fernando Simón, the head of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, has recommended leaving middle seats unfilled, although he also admitted that he didn’t know what kind of an impact this might have on airlines’ bottom line.
In recent days, several airline passengers have reported packed cabins where social distancing was impossible to maintain, including on a Sunday flight in the Canary Islands operated by Iberia Express. One woman on an Air Europa plane that flew on Monday between two destinations in the Balearic Islands has also filed a formal complaint with the Civil Guard.
But there is no legal provision forcing airlines to cap flights in either the state of alarm decreed in Spain in mid-March or in the regulations that followed. The sole exception is flights between islands in the Balearics and the Canaries, which must fly at a maximum of 50% capacity.
Sources in the executive said they are aware of this gap, and that they are waiting for the European Commission to issue common air-safety rules. Commissioners will meet on Wednesday to try to hammer out a protocol that protects passenger health while ensuring that airlines can remain financially afloat. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) will later draft the rules and recommendations that emerge from the Commission.
One of the ideas under consideration is to establish air corridors between countries with a similar risk of contagion, so citizens can travel within that space without restrictions. This would eliminate the self-quarantine requirement. The EU is also considering letting airlines give travel vouchers instead of refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
Javier Gándara, president of the Airlines Association (ALA), wants to see a common EU agreement and warns about extending the quarantine orders beyond June. The state of alarm is due to end on May 24, but Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez would like to push it to June 29, if he can obtain the congressional backing for it. This would in turn prolong the quarantine orders until that date.
“Introducing restrictions does not help, and the risk here is for [the quarantine] to extend beyond the state of alarm. If so, the impact would be brutal, because nobody will want to travel to Spain just to be stuck in a hotel for 14 days,” said Gándara.
The industry association Exceltur has also expressed concern at a measure that “proves that tourism has not been taken into account in the government’s agenda of strategic decisions.” Its vice-president, José Luis Zoreda, said it is to be expected that if “German or British citizens considering travel to Spain this summer read the news about the quarantine, they will book their vacation elsewhere.”
Spanish airports operator Aena is working on a new protocol for airports, considered potential hotspots of coronavirus transmission. A draft seen by EL PAÍS includes barring people without flight tickets from accessing the terminals to send off their friends or relatives. There would be exceptions for people assisting unaccompanied minors or other passengers requiring help.
The document lists around 30 measures aimed at enhancing airport safety, including social-distancing guidelines and spaced-out seating in waiting areas. Aena is hoping to have the measures ready by June, when deescalation in Spain is scheduled to be completed, ending mobility restrictions.
English version by Susana Urra.