House Transportation Chair Tells US Airlines To Enforce Social Distancing On Flights

Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, is calling on airlines to apply social distancing policies onboard aircraft amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a May 14th letter, Chairman DeFazio reached out to Airlines for America (A4A) and the National Air Carrier Association (NACA) to pressure their members to leave one open seat between people on a plane.

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A full United flight prompted Chairman DeFazio to send a letter to airline groups. Photo: Getty Images

Chairman DeFazio calls for social distancing

In the letter, Chairman DeFazio opens with the story of a Boeing 737 from Newark to San Francisco. Without naming an airline, he is clearly referencing a United Airlines flight that made news when a doctor tweeted about the experience showing a nearly full flight.

United is just one airline that has come under fire for a few packed flights. American also took on some criticism when a few of its flights departed full. Outside the US, both Air France and Qantas also have been publicly shamed for not following social distancing guidelines.

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United and American are two airlines that are not guaranteeing that there will be space between passengers. Photo: Getty Images

In his letter, Chairman DeFazio states the following:

“Of course, I am cognizant of the financial devastation that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought upon the Nation’s airlines, which remain critically important to our national security and the movement of essential workers and cargo. The airlines must be able to generate revenue to remain solvent because a sustainable, viable airline system is in the public interest. But filling planes with travelers who are paying rock-bottom, below-cost airfares, simply to boost load factors or preserve market share, both exacerbates losses and endangers public health and welfare. And that strategy has never delivered an airline from insolvency; in fact, it has driven many out of business.”

United and American have taken a “when possible” approach to social distancing. While most flights are departing with only a few passengers on board, there are others that are leaving full.

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Delta is blocking seats in economy class. Photo: Getty Images

To address this, Chairman DeFazio requests airlines ensure that passengers have one seat-width of spacing between each other, with dynamically adjusted fares to account for load factors. Essentially, airlines should only sell 67% of seats, according to Chairman DeFazio.

Why this is coming up now

Back in March and April, the trend was empty flights. People just were not traveling anymore. However, in the last couple of weeks, the TSA has seen an uptick in its screening of passengers. However, with airlines only operating a few flights– and even those using smaller aircraft– there are concerns about whether or not passengers will be able to keep some room between them and other travelers on a plane.

Airport security
The TSA has seen an increase in the number of passengers flying since late March. Photo: Getty Images

On the ground, it is easier to observe social distancing. Airlines are starting to board fewer people at a time or else putting signs on the floor telling people to mind their personal space and give others some room. Simultaneously, airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks, but not necessarily enforcing it.

But, once inside an aircraft, it becomes a lot more difficult for people to spread out, leaving some passengers nervous about flying. Chairman DeFazio emphasized his concerns about flying in a plane. He also posed a question to the CEOs of US airlines: would they want a member of their own family to be assigned to a middle seat between two potentially contagious passengers in the middle of a global pandemic?

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Airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks, but not necessarily allowing for social distancing. Photo: Getty Images


This letter is not an official legislative act. In essence, the Chairman is simply requesting that carriers do so. Of major airlines, Delta and Southwest are blocking off seats. The question now is whether the industry responds after receiving billions in federal aid. The other concern, however, is whether airlines will have to mark up fares to make up for the decreased capacity.

Would you feel comfortable getting onboard a full flight? Do you think airlines should block off middle seats? Let us know in the comments!