Are Passengers To Blame For Packed Flights In Social Distancing Era?

For the past month, there have been little flurries of outrage after passengers posted pictures online of crowded aircraft. Terrible, people say, how dare the airline fill a plane. Over the last day or so, another video has emerged. This time American Airlines is in the firing line over a full flight from New York Kennedy to Charlotte, North Carolina, last Saturday.

American Airlines came under fire from a passenger over its lack of social distancing on a flight last weekend. Photo: American Airlines.

The post on Twitter by a passenger on the “nearly full” flight questioned American Airlines’ commitment to social distancing and passenger health and well being.

American Airlines operates its flights according to protocols from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and public health officials. In a statement, American Airlines said;

“Last month, in response to CDC social distancing guidelines, American began temporarily relaxed seating policies for customers on our flights and reduced onboard food and beverage service levels. To encourage social distancing, gate agents will reassign seats to create more space between customers.”

One of the problems on this flight is that there were few spare seats, and not much wiggle room for gate agents or flight attendants to move people around.

Is it the airline’s fault the flight was full?

The passenger posting on Twitter squarely aimed her guns at American Airlines. Is this American’s fault? Well, US carriers have cut domestic capacity, and the TSA is reporting that passenger numbers through its checkpoints are increasing. According to the TSA, 92,859 passengers passed through their checkpoints on 21 April. It continues to creep up. By 26 April, 128,875 passengers went through checkpoints, the most since early April.

So, while airlines like American continue to run a slimmed-down schedule, we are going to see more and more crowded flights – just like the old days. But it is important to keep in mind that American Airlines is operating its flights per CDC guidelines.

Given that we are actively being discouraged from traveling, many responses to the Twitter post raised a good point – why was the passenger flying anyway?

As some respondents to the tweet said, the passenger had the option of purchasing the seat next to her to guarantee her some space. Equally, she could have driven. It’s only a day’s drive from New York to Charlotte.

Rationalizing your choices is human nature

I’m not really interested in this particular passenger. Rationalizing your behavior and decision making is human nature. Crowded planes are human Petrie dishes at the best of times. The pandemic heightens awareness of this risk. But ultimately, each passenger has the choice of whether to travel or not.

Sure, there might be consequences of your choices. There might be a job, or family, or boyfriend waiting at the destination airport. This passenger made her choice to travel – that’s her right. But if all the other passengers exercise the same choice for whatever reason, it is a bit unfair to blame the airline for that.

After, American Airlines was only accommodating the travel choices of passengers.