Qantas' new COVID-19 health policy, which recommends the wearing of masks by passengers but not the practicing of social distancing on board planes, contradicts advice from Australia's leading government health experts.
The airline on Tuesday released its new rules, stating that leaving empty seats between passengers was impractical, unnecessary and would result in exorbitant airfares.
The Commonwealth's chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, who has consistently stressed the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, has also stated that Australians don't need to wear face masks and that they can provide a "false sense of security" to those who wear them.
"We're saying again that they are not recommended," Professor Murphy told reporters last month. "We are not recommending the general community wear masks. We have been saying that consistently through the pandemic."
Commonwealth deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, who is also a respiratory and infectious diseases specialist, said only last week that the evidence for using face masks in the general community to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 "is not very strong".
"Some nations around the world have a strong tradition of facial mask use even in the absence of COVID-19 but for Australia, at the moment, we have not changed the advice [and] the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee does not recommend the use of masks in the community," Dr Coatsworth said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed that the Australian Government has provided advice to the airline regarding physical distancing and hygiene measures.
"Whilst specific distancing has not been mandated for domestic flights, it is expected that operations undertake a comprehensive risk assessment and management strategy to ensure the safety of the community and air crew," the spokesperson said. "Their risk assessment should consider the epidemiology in the local community and controls should be applied accordingly.
Qantas said in its statement on Tuesday that masks would be provided and, while not mandatory, should be "worn in the interests of everyone's peace-of-mind".
Qantas and Jetstar, obviously keen to limit revenue losses from unoccupied seats, will be gambling on passengers being willing to fly in crowded cabins in the midst of a pandemic.
Many overseas airlines, including those in North America, leave an empty seat between passengers, partly in response to complaints from their own flight attendants about the lack of social distancing on flights
The Flight Attendants' Association of Australia has said it will explore legal avenues for staff who are unsatisfied with Qantas's handling of COVID-19 risk.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, a University of Sydney associate professor who specialises in global health security and international relations, said Qantas may be obliged to leave spare seats between passengers when it eventually resumes international flights.
"Qantas may be able to make this case for domestic flights and obtain an exemption, but for international flights this decision is not just up to the Australian Government," he said. "Other countries may impose social distancing requirements on planes, based on what is considered acceptable, international, safe practice.
"There are international organisations that may also set standards, such as the World Health Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. If Qantas does not heed those requirements, it may find itself isolated or even refused the ability to disembark passengers. We are entering a different world.
"Businesses will need to adapt to the vaccine-free COVID-19 era and ultimately ... customers will vote with their feet as to whether they consider the risks acceptable."
Qantas' new policy echos that of the global body for airlines, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which has called for passengers and crew to wear masks but not for seats to be left empty, citing costs.
"We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable," the IATA said in a statement.