EasyJet to keep middle seats on planes empty to allow for social distancing once coronavirus lockdown lifted

EasyJet has said it plans to keep the middle seat on its planes empty to enable social distancing when the airline resumes flying.

Chief executive Johan Lundgren said the measure was aimed at encouraging passengers to fly again after the coronavirus pandemic recedes.

"I think that is something that the customers would like to see," Mr Lundgren said.

The majority of easyJet aircraft are configured with three seats in a row, either side of the aisle.

The change would means passengers in the window and aisle seats would have an empty seat next to them.

Mr Lundgren said it will be possible to keep middle seats empty as "our assumption is that load factors will not get back to normal early on".

EasyJet's planes have been fully grounded since March 30, a week after Boris Johnson announced a UK lockdown.

But the airline said more than half of disrupted passengers had chosen vouchers or alternative flights and winter bookings were ahead of last year's.

It has been a turbulent year for the airline. Credit: PA

The airline's CEO did not speculate on the financial impact of reducing the number of available seats despite low-cost airlines often rely on filling planes to make flights profitable.

He said the company was also looking at "various disinfection programmes on the aircraft".

"We're in discussions with Easa (the European aviation safety regulator) if there are other additional measures we should take.

"I think it's important that customers understand that we are taking this very seriously and first and foremost our concern is about the customers' well-being and our people's well-being.

"That is what's going to take priority in this whole thing, because that is the way you get the confidence back with people taking flights again."

EasyJet said it is set to report underlying pre-tax losses of between £185 million and £205 million for the six months to March 31, against losses of £275 million a year earlier.

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou called easyJet's directors 'scoundrels'. Credit: PA

But the airline added said statutory pre-tax losses of up to £380 million are expected due to a hit of as much as £185 million for fuel and foreign exchange hedging costs.

EasyJet's founder and largest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou responded to the financial update by describing Mr Lundgren and easyJet chairman John Barton as "scoundrels" and calling on them to be removed as directors because the airline is still sending "at least £2.5 billion" to Airbus despite the deferral of 24 new plane deliveries.

Mr Lundgren said Haji-Ioannou's comments were "not helpful."

"It's a distraction on what we're doing.

"But myself, the team and the board, we're absolutely focused on managing through this time.

"This is one of the worst crises that aviation has ever seen."