After announcing several changes to the way passengers will fly on board Qantas aircraft, CEO Alan Joyce has defended the airline’s decision to make masks optional and reinstate the middle seat on board.

Mr Joyce came out swinging on Wednesday, claiming there was a nearly negligible risk of getting COVID-19 on a plane meaning passengers shouldn’t be concerned about social distancing while on board.

“Because the cabin’s pressurised, 99.9 per cent of all viruses, all bacteria, are filtered through medical-grade filters, they are usually in operating theatres and the air is extracted every five minutes from the cabin,” he said. “The air circulates from top to bottom.”

Mr Joyce said that because passengers face the same direction with “a barrier of a seat in front of them” there is “a very low risk of transmission of COVID-19”.

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From June 12, the airline will issue passengers with masks on board, have hand sanitising stations installed at departure gates and enhanced aircraft cleaning between flights as part of their new Fly Well program.

There will also be changes to the way passengers check in for their flights, with the airline encouraging everyone to use contactless check-in (via online/app) and a self-serve bag drop prior to boarding.

Last month, the airline announced they’d be keeping the middle seat free in response to social distancing measures, however the airline said that measure wouldn’t continue because the policy was impractical.

“Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we’re putting place will reduce the risk even further,” Qantas Group Medical Director, Dr Ian Hosegood, said.

But social media users are torn over the decision, with some saying the comments around social distancing were “disgraceful”.

“Just disgraceful. Does he (Alan Joyce) not understand how bad this virus is?” one person wrote on Twitter.

“Any other business is bound by OHS requiring safe environment for staff & clients alike, somehow this legislated requirement skips air travel,” another added.

“Why does Qantas get to disregard SD for financial reasons when other businesses can’t? They won’t be getting my business.”

On Wednesday, Mr Joyce told Today there could be hundreds of thousands of people who have travelled worldwide since the pandemic arose and not gotten the virus, claiming “we don’t know of a single person-to-person transmission on an aircraft”.

“We know, in Qantas’s case, we have a lot of cases of people that have subsequently been found with COVID-19 and it hasn’t been a transmission. We have a comfort that, with the cabin, with the measures we’re introducing – the masks, the sanitisers for people to wipe down, the extra cleaning we’re doing ourselves, hand sanitisers all the way through the terminal – we’re very comfortable you don’t need social distancing on an aircraft.”

He said he hopes domestic flights will begin to ramp up by July, before eventually extending to New Zealand.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian gave her state some welcome news on Wednesday, announcing regional travel for holidays will be allowed from June 1.

Ms Berejiklian confirmed that while regional areas would be able to welcome tourists – holidays would now be very different than they were prior to the pandemic.

“You can go on a holiday with your family and friends, but know the holiday you’re taking from 1 June will be different to a holiday you have taken before,” she said.

“We want people to enjoy themselves, to feel free, but nothing we do is the same during a pandemic.”

Ms Berejiklian advised that tourists travelling around NSW would need to take extra care and plan ahead, book online and keep away from large crowds – reiterating that holidays in 2020 would be very different to what we’ve experienced before.

The borders around Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, as well as the Northern Territory still remain closed.

The nation’s death toll reached 100 yesterday after a 93-year-old woman became the 19th person to die at Newmarch House aged care home in Sydney’s west, a facility that accounts for almost a fifth of all known coronavirus deaths in Australia.