Government Urged To Buy American Airlines’ Middle Seats

The union representing American Airlines pilots wants the United States Government to buy middle seats on domestic flights. Under a plan, estimated to cost $1.9 billion a month, no passenger would have to sit next to another.

American Airlines pilots union wants the government to buy middle seats. Photo: Prayitno via Flickr

Union wants the government to underwrite empty middle seats

The Allied Pilots Association (APA) proposal, called Safe Essential Air Transportation Seating (SEATS), would see current social distance protocols continue. It would also be another big government subsidy for the struggling airline industry.

“Under SEATS, the government would purchase enough seats on each flight to eliminate the need for any passenger to sit next to a stranger,” said APA President Capt. Eric Ferguson.

The APA is the largest independent pilots unions in the United States and represents the interests of some 15,000 American Airlines pilots.

“Thanks to uniform social distancing, passengers would be encouraged to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure the preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and associated jobs.”

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Is the APA’s proposal just another request for a government subsidy? Photo: Ian Gratton via Flickr

Proposal comes with a big price tag

But APA’s idea is expensive. They want the price of empty seats to be based on industry average costs for 2019. Flying at 40% capacity, this will cost $1.9 billion per month spread across the ten major US carriers.

Earlier this month, American Airlines said they planned to fly 55% of its domestic schedule and nearly 20% of its international schedule in July 2020 compared to the same period last year. Systemwide, American Airlines’ will operate at 40% of its July 2019 capacity.

As airlines ramp up their schedules, the SEATS cost would rise. It would cost $3.8 billion per month when the airlines reach 80% capacity.

Pilots union plays down subsidy angle

Capt. Ferguson prefers to view this spending as an investment rather than a subsidy.

“The return of air travel is a major catalyst for economic recovery, stimulating ancillary spending well beyond the cost of an airline ticket,” he said.

“On one hand, policymakers face enormous pressure to reopen the economy, while also taking into account the importance of social distancing to mitigate the spread of the virus. Fortunately, where the airline industry is concerned, these competing pressures do not need to be addressed as an ‘either/or’ choice.”

US carriers, including American Airlines, have generally been able to spread passengers around the cabin. But if flights are busy, the middle seats can fill up.

To date, airlines have been keeping middle empty when they can. Photo: Tomas Del Coro via Flickr

Jobs in jeopardy when current funding ends

A pandemic fuelled travel downturn has devastated the airline industry. In April, American Airlines was carrying just 32,154 passengers a day with an average load factor of 15%. The United States Government is making a substantial financial contribution to the industry via the CARES Act.  American Airlines received $5.8 billion. This includes a direct cash grant of $4.1 billion to underwrite payroll expenses. There is also a low-interest loan of $1.7 billion.

But that assistance is due to end on September 30. After that, the fate of many airline employees, including many of APA’s 15,000 members, is up in the air. The union’s proposal, while styled as an investment and a proactive health measure, is also about continuing subsidies, albeit under a different guise.

APA has taken their idea to both Washington and American Airlines. The response has been muted. American Airlines hasn’t dismissed APA’s proposal. However, they note there are no plans to ask the United States Government for further financial assistance.