American Airlines Throws Out Social Distancing Measures During Pandemic

American Airlines said it would be flying planes at full capacity beginning July 1. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP via Getty Images)
American Airlines said it would be flying planes at full capacity beginning July 1. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP via Getty Images)

Although the U.S. is still in the middle of a raging coronavirus pandemic that is breaking records in states like Texas and Florida and getting us banned from visiting Europe, American Airlines has decided to throw out social distancing measures on its planes. The airline quietly announced on Friday that it will start to fly its planes at full capacity beginning July 1.

Strangely, the announcement was buried in a press release about the airline’s new Travel Health Advisory Panel and a covid-19 symptom checklist, among other safety measures, although it’s extremely likely that passengers would want to know if the company’s planes will be fuller next week. American said it would continue to notify customers if they were booked on more crowded flights and allow them to change flights free of charge.

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“As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1,” American said in the press release.

The airline said that if space is available once boarding is complete, “taking into consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions,” passengers could move to another seat within their ticket cabin if it was available. United Airlines is offering a similar option through June 30, allowing customers on regularly scheduled flights “that are expected to be closer to full capacity” to rebook or receive a travel credit.

According to the Associated Press, since April, American has limited bookings to 85 per cent of a plane’s capacity by leaving the middle seats open. However, this social distancing measure will disappear next week as the airline returns to full capacity.

Other airlines have not been so quick to throw out social distancing on their planes. Per the AP, Delta is capping seats at 60 per cent capacity and Southwest at about 67 per cent capacity through Sept. 30. Meanwhile, JetBlue said it would leave middle seats empty through July 31 unless an individual is travelling with a passenger in an adjoining seat.

As it ramps up to full capacity next week, American will also begin to ask passengers during check-in to certify that they have been free of covid-19 symptoms for the past 14 days. The airline already requires passengers and its employees to wear face masks on its planes unless there is a medical reason that prevents them from doing so.

Figuring out how to ramp up operations safely has been a challenge for airlines, one of the industries most ravaged by the virus, during the pandemic. In fact, some airlines differ in their approach to safety. The AP reports that United and Spirit Airlines argue that other steps, such as improved cleaning procedures and universal face mask policies, eliminate the need to block seats.

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On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump administration met with chief executives from United, Delta, American, and JetBlue, as well as the president of Southwest, to talk about recovery from the covid-19 crisis. Reuters reports that the airlines want the U.S. government to take passengers’ temperatures — fever is a common covid-19 symptom — before boarding to reassure passengers that flights are safe.

According to Reuters, the Trump administration is open to having the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) perform temperature checks, but still has many questions, such as what would happen to passengers who are denied boarding for having high fevers and how to pay for the screening.

In the end, the White House did not make any commitments to requiring and carrying out temperature checks after the meeting.