American Airlines Implements Social Distancing On Flights

In a public video message released yesterday, Kurt Stache, the Senior Vice President of Customer Experience for American Airlines, provided an update on new policies and procedures for travelers. The update implements social distancing guidelines as per CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) recommendations in light of the current outbreak situation.

American Airlines reduces international capacity with 10% due to coronavirus
Most destinations are scheduled to restart on May 7th. However – this is not guaranteed as it depends on the overall situation getting better. Photo: Getty

The video message and its updates

The two minute and 20 second video covers a short list of changes to American Airlines services. At a very general level they include:

  • Seating assignment adjustments
  • Foodservice changes
  • Lounge service updates
  • The ability to transport pets

The key point of interest to us and this article is the implementation of social distancing onboard its flights. In the video, Stache says the following:

“Our gate agents can re-assign seats at the gate to create more space between you and other travelers. To make this easier, we’re blocking half of all middle seats.”

Stache adds that there may be restrictions to these updates and this is not guaranteed. However, as a step towards making more space, it certainly moves in the right direction.

But is sitting with one empty seat between travelers enough? After all, the majority of economy seats range from 17 to 18 inches in width. Let’s see what the CDC has to say…

What is the CDC saying?

The CDC defines the term social distancing as the following, according to its website:

“Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Immediately, we can see a problem. The simple act of air travel is somewhat contrary to social distancing. Of course, in this environment, it drastically depends on the airport and the flight.

Given the travel restrictions implemented by countries everywhere, we’ve seen a devastating and drastic downturn in air traffic. On the ground, this takes the form of deserted terminals and half-filled flights.

One of the more shocking examples is Air New Zealand’s March 25th service from Singapore to Auckland. This flight only had four passengers traveling. In a kind gesture, Air New Zealand upgraded them all to business class on the 787-9 Dreamliner.

Cabin crew wears protective gear for Korean Air
At the service of travelers from all over the world on a regular basis, flight crews face a heightened risk of being in close distance to an infected individual. Photo: Getty

The CDC’s interim guidelines and risk assessment actually has this to say about air travel, labeling it as a medium-level risk for exposure:

“[A medium risk] on an aircraft [is] being seated within 6 feet (two meters) of a traveler with symptomatic laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection; this distance correlates approximately with 2 seats in each direction.”

American Airlines Delta
American Airlines will block off half of its middle seats and encourage gate agents to re-assign seats before boarding. Photo: Getty Images


If flights are as empty as the Air New Zealand service mentioned above, then achieving a CDC-mandated social distance is possible. At this current moment, we don’t imagine any aircraft will be fully packed. However, achieving six feet between all travelers on a plane is unlikely. With many airlines and/or countries banning symptomatic travelers from flying, perhaps a closer distance isn’t as dangerous.

At least American Airlines is moving in the right direction by at least attempting to put an empty seat between passengers – even if it is only 25% of the official recommendation.

Do you think an empty seat between passengers is enough? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.