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Vancouver woman 'appalled' by lack of physical distancing on flight to Winnipeg

Last Updated Jul 3, 2020 at 5:37 pm PDT

FILE - A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

After learning middle seats were filled on her flight, A Vancouver woman paid hundreds of dollars to physical distance

Air Passenger Rights president aruges the woman should demand a refund

Air Canada says passengers in economy class can change their seats at no extra cost

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A Vancouver woman ended up paying more to fly to Winnipeg this week after she didn’t feel safe with the lack of physical distancing on her flight.

Connie Thiessen says she never would have chosen to visit her elderly parents — who both have health issues– if she knew Air Canada was no longer leaving middle seats empty.

“The idea of being in a middle seat, in such close proximity to people, was really, really concerning,” she says, explaining she first booked the flight under the impression she wouldn’t have a middle seat, and there would be about 50 empty seats on the plane.

She ended up having to pay $330 more to sit in business class, which she says had the only seat left on the plane allowing enough space between passengers.

“When I went to check in, I was assigned a middle seat and I was appalled,” Thiessen says. “All of the social distancing I had been doing was going to be erased in one afternoon on this flight.”

She adds the flight had been delayed because it took extra time to clean to plane before passengers boarded.

Air Canada and West Jet dropping in-flight physical distancing this week has many Canadians voicing their concerns, and prompted a call from B.C.’s health minister asking for evidence it’s safe.

Case for a refund

Air Passenger Rights President Gabor Lukacs says Thiessen is entitled to a partial refund.

“If an airline advertises, ‘We will be giving you champagne on board,’ then actually you get a glass of water only, then they are in breach of their contract. And in this case, we’re talking about more than champagne,” he says. “It’s quite a different service to have no one sitting next to you as opposed to having someone sitting next to you.”

“I would say in [Thiessen’s] situation, once she’s done with her travel, she should file a charge back on those extra charges because they promised her a seating with nobody sitting next to her, then they charged her extra to provide that service.”

He adds this is a safety issue, so Transport Canada should be demanding physical distancing on all passenger planes.

Safety measures in place

Air Canada points to effective air filtration systems as a key point for passenger safety during the pandemic. The airline explains the air is filtered every two to three minutes.

It says the new seating rule that came into effect July 1 replaced the adjacent seating measure, which was only meant to the temporary.

“One important feature of this is that customers in Economy Class will be alerted ahead of time if their flight is near capacity and given options to change flights at no additional cost,” Air Canada says in a statement.

“While we would all like a single measure that reduces risk, we are left to use a combination of approaches to mitigate risk as far as practical.”

This includes the air filtration system, mandatory masks, and “medical-grade disinfectants and electrostatic methods” of cleaning.

Transport Canada has also explained in a statement it issued guidance to the aviation industry, including recommendations for passenger spacing aboard planes, but it is not mandatory.

“Recognizing that it is very difficult to consistently maintain recommended physical distance on board aircraft, whether it is from the person sitting in front, behind you or across the aisle, other protective measures against COVID-19 have been implemented as part of the multi-layered approach to support reducing the risk of COVID-19,” it says in a statement.

Measures include mandatory health checks for all passengers as well as requiring face coverings while travelling by air. Transport Canada says it has increased space between agents and passengers while limiting food services.