After the controversy sparked by a picture of a flight packed with passengers wearing no protective equipment, Air France announced it would distribute masks in planes when the number of passengers is too high to respect the social distancing imposed to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.

A journalist shared the picture of flight AF6008 from Marseille Provence Airport (MRS) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG). The cabin of the Airbus A318, registered F-GUGJ, is almost full. “After respecting social distancing while waiting in line to board, passengers find themselves seated side by side,” she commented. While the cabin crew was equipped with personal protective equipment, most of the passengers were not wearing masks.

Facing a backlash, Air France explained that the reason for this dangerous situation was an unusual filling rate. The route between Paris and Marseille, which has been reduced to one daily flight due to low demand, is usually 50% full, allowing for social distance to be respected. The carrier thus claims that the situation seen in the picture is exceptional.

Air France released a statement reminding that the air inside an aircraft cabin is constantly filtered using High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) standard filters “identical to those used in an operation room”. “The cabin air is thus completely renewed every 3 minutes,” claims the carrier. “HEPA filters extract more than 99.999% of viruses, including those whose size does not exceed 0.01 micrometer, thus ensuring the quality of the air in the cabin and its compliance with sanitary standards.” As a reminder, Coronavirus-type viruses’ size range from 0.08 to 0.16 microns.

Insufficient measures

Yet the French Secretary of State for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari asked the national carrier to implement stricter safety measures to make sure the situation does not happen again. Air France assured that until the quarantine is progressively lifted, passengers that would feel the need would be provided with masks.

The answer remains insufficient for the flight crew unions. Interviewed by LCI, Vincent Salles, co-secretary general of the CGT-Air France union, described the safety conditions shown in the picture as “scandalous”, and asked for masks, gel and cleaning wipes to be provided in sufficient quantity, and for distancing measures to be systematically enforced. He argues that an increase in the number of flights could help prevent the situation from repeating itself. 

This, however, seems highly unlikely as Air France faces an unprecedented drop in demand due to the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. On March 16, 2020, Ben Smith, CEO of Air France-KLM Group, announced the group would gradually reduce its activity by up to 90% and temporarily lay off up to 80% of the nearly 40,000 employees that constitute its workforce.

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Like other carriers in Europe, the containment measures to fight the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic have greatly affected Air France’s revenue. The national airline could be saved by a state intervention once the crisis passes.