A Tasmanian doctor has filed an official complaint after she was marched off a Jetstar flight by federal police for asking to move seats to allow for social distancing.
Susan, who wishes to keep her surname private, was meant to be travelling from Adelaide to Hobart on August 6 onboard Jetstar flight JQ 681.
When she found her seat in row 16, she saw it was full with passengers sitting shoulder to shoulder while other rows were completely empty.
“I asked a flight attendant if I could move to another row for social distancing reasons, especially as one of the passengers beside me and two in the row directly behind were not wearing masks,” the doctor told The New Daily.
“She said we had to stay in our seats for contact tracing.”
Overhearing the conversation, other passengers seated near her agreed they should be allowed to spread out and raised their concerns with the flight attendant, she said.
But the request was again denied, at which point another passenger seated further away threatened to send photos of the tightly packed rows to the media.
“The cabin manager said she was going to get the captain to talk to us as she wasn’t happy for us to fly,” Susan said.
After several minutes, the captain did not appear.
The cabin manager then revealed she was waiting for the federal police to come and escort the doctor and other passengers off the plane because they had “arced” up at her.
“There was some discussion about how this was untrue, but I said nothing during this exchange,” Susan said.
“Then four police officers came and asked me and the man sitting beside me to get off … no one else was asked to leave.”
Susan said she remained silent as the police walked her off the plane over fear that arguing might “escalate the situation further”.
“I was obviously quite upset from a pride stance because I consider myself a pretty upstanding member of the community,” she said, adding the ordeal was “embarrassing”.
“At no time did I or any other passengers raise my voice or use any words that could be considered profanity, a threat or rude.”
Coronavirus fears justified
The incident is just one example of growing concerns over airline passenger safety during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a new study revealed at least 11 Ruby Princess cruise ship passengers – including one “super spreader” – may have infected up to 11 people with the coronavirus on a domestic flight between Sydney and Perth.
On March 19, QF577 left Sydney for Perth with 243 passengers – 60 of whom had been passengers on cruise ships.
They included 28 from Ruby Princess, 30 from Ovation of the Seas and at least two from Sun Princess.
The study, published by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 11 passengers on the flight who had not been on the cruise ships had likely contracted COVID-19 on the flight.
The findings, based on genomic sequencing by West Australian researchers, has prompted Qantas to call for the sharing of passenger documents among national airlines to help avoid future spreading incidents.
Susan was forced to stay in Adelaide until the next available flight on August 8, losing two days of work at her hospital in Hobart.
“I understand the whole travel industry and its staff are under a huge amount of pressure right now, and can only imagine this staff
member was very stressed,” she said.
“However, I am absolutely outraged at both the treatment I received … and the disruption this has caused to my life and work.”
Susan made an official complaint to Jetstar, in which she requested reimbursement for incurred expenses, such as the cost of a replacement flight, meals and lost income. But it was denied.
Now, she’s turning her attention to ensuring future passengers worried about a lack of social distancing on flights don’t suffer the same fate.
“If no one is holding the airlines accountable, then individuals who are travelling can’t voice their concerns about what’s safe during the pandemic,” she said.
“Even in health care you can’t have more than a certain number of people in a room at a time, from operating theatres through to the tea room, so it seems crazy that on an aeroplane that’s OK.”
In a statement to The New Daily, a Jetstar spokesperson said “customers must follow crew instructions at all times” for the safety of all passengers and crew.
“We apologise for not accommodating the customers’ requests to move seats in this instance. However, after they repeatedly refused to follow crew instructions, assistance from the AFP was required,” the spokesperson said.
According to federal COVID-safe domestic flying protocol, it is the airline’s responsibility to accommodate social distancing requirements where possible.
“Where possible, physical distancing will be facilitated by airlines, and family groups seated together with spacing between groups and individuals,” the rules state.