Why Captain Sully Will Only Fly If The Middle Seat Is Free

Blocked middle seats are one of the many steps that airlines have taken to enforce social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. This reduction in load factor has seen airlines take financial hits in favor of passenger safety. ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ hero Captain Chesley Sullenberger has come out in support of the measure.

American Airlines and US Airways
Captain Sullenberger flew for US Airways and its predecessors between 1980 and 2010. Photo: Getty Images

An unprecedented emergency landing

January 15th, 2009 saw Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles successfully land US Airways flight 1549 from New York LaGuardia to Charlotte, North Carolina, on the Hudson River. The ditching occurred after a bird strike caused the Airbus A320 operating the flight to lose all engine power.

The incident was unprecedented as the water landing occurred without any loss of life among the flight’s 155 occupants. Captain Sullenberger retired in 2010 after 30 years with US Airways, and the airline merged with American Airlines in October 2015.

Why Captain Sully Will Only Fly If The Middle Seat Is Free
Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of US1549’s 155 occupants with a successful ditching in the Hudson River. Photo: Getty Images

Having also undertaken accident investigation work during his career, Sully has since become a significant figure in discourses surrounding aviation safety. On September 29th, he appeared on Erich Schmidt’s ‘Reimagine’ podcast with former Airbus CEO Tom Enders. Titled ‘Piloting Through the Pandemic,’ the discussion saw the panelists discuss the threat that coronavirus poses to airlines.

A passionate advocate for safety

On the podcast, Sully expressed his dismay at the “vacuum of leadership” that has been “one of the great failures of the response” to Coronavirus in the USA. This, Sully claims, has affected the country’s airline industry.

Specifically, he observes that the lack of leadership on a national scale means that “individual airlines are having to come up with their own policies.” He states that, on a national scale, “a federal face-covering mandate (…) would have been one of the most effective things that we could do.”

American Boeing 787 Getty
Sully’s former airline, US Airways, merged with American in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

In Sully’s opinion, steps taken to reduce the risk of coronavirus onboard commercial flights should be seen as civic duties, just as, in cars, drivers “have to stop at stop signs and red lights.” He argues further that,

“If we have to wear seat belts on the airplane and we have to keep our seat backs and tray tables upright and stowed for takeoff and landing, and if we have to do other things that are important, not only for our safety but for the safety of those around us, then why in the world would we not wear a mask to keep from spreading a potentially deadly virus?”

Blocked middle seats – a key measure

Another measure that Sully advocates is the blocking of middle seats to keep distance between passengers. Citing a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the decorated former captain claims that “if middle seats are kept unoccupied, the risk of contracting COVID is approximately half that if all the seats are fully occupied.”

Sully, a passionate advocate for aviation safety, concludes that, in the future, he will only “fly on an airplane where the middle seats are kept empty, knowing that [his] chances of catching COVID are half that if the middle seat were filled.”

Do measures such as blocked middle seats increase your confidence in flying in the current climate? What are your experiences of flying since the pandemic began? Let us know in the comments.