Dr. Fauci Says American Airlines Filling Aircraft Is “Of Concern”

In a June 30th hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Dr. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy And Infectious Diseases (NIAID) indicated that American Airlines ending social distancing was “of concern.” This comes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold in the United States. In particular, this concern was over American announcing it would book flights to capacity starting from July 1st.

American Airlines
Public health officials indicated concern over American’s end of social distancing onboard planes. Photo: Getty Images

American’s practices bring scrutiny

In the June 30th hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont posed the following question:

“Just the other day, however, American Airlines announced that they were going to fill up all of their planes and other airlines have done the same. So you’re going to have people going from New York to California, five, six hours, sitting inches apart from each other. My question is, why hasn’t the government, whether its the CDC or the Department of Transportation (DOT), issued guidelines prohibiting those violations of what we all know to be common sense?”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a well-respected member of the medical community who has been one of the most visible members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, responded the following:

“Obviously, that is of something that is of concern. I’m not sure exactly went into that decision making. I would hope there would be something to mitigate against that, because I know, as we’ve said and I continue to repeat it, that avoiding crowds, staying distant, and when, in a situation like that, wear a mask. I think in the confines of an airplane that becomes even more problematic.”

Dr. Fauci Says American Airlines Filling Aircraft Is “Of Concern”
One concern is over transcontinental routes. Photo: Airbus

Dr. Robert Redfield, another respected member of the medical community and current Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), went further:

“I think it is a critical area. I can tell you that when they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines. A number of airlines had decided to keep the middle seat free. I can’t say this is under critical review by us at CDC, we don’t think this is the right message. Again, we think its really important in individuals, whether its a bus or a plane or a train, to do social distancing to the degree that’s feasible and least wear a face covering.”

Public health experts in the United States and around the world are telling people to stay six feet apart. On a plane, that becomes a little difficult. Even with blocked middle seats, passengers sitting in front or behind you are often quite close as well. One interesting practice, however, comes from LOT Polish, which is introducing a staggered, chess-board style seating configuration.

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American Airlines is ending social distancing

From July 1st, American will be booking its planes to capacity. That does not mean that every flight on AA will go out full. Rather, it just means that the airline will offer to sell all the seats available. American is not the only airline that does this. United is another airline that has stated it would not be blocking out seats. Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest are the largest airlines in the United States that are keeping middle seats open – for now.

American Airlines passengers
American will sell to capacity. However, where possible, passengers could still request to move. Photo: Getty Images

Simple Flying reached out to American for comment on the story:

“We are unwavering in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers and team members. We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including required face coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, and a pre-flight COVID-19 symptom checklist — and we’re providing additional flexibility for customers to change their travel plans, as well. We know our customers are placing their trust in us to make every aspect of their journey safe, and we are committed to doing just that.”

As for American’s onboard cleaning, the airline has upped its inflight cleaning procedures, so now the hand-cleaning of seat buckles, the seats, tray tables, and other high-touch surfaces are happening. And, every seven days, American uses an electrostatic spray machine inside the aircraft which, per the airline, offers seven-day protection against bacteria, mold, and viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

American Airlines Dallas
Planes are fogged every seven days. Photo: Getty Images

The airline will, however, notify passengers if they are on busy flights. When available, passengers will be allowed to move to a different flight without incurring any additional penalty. Lastly, once onboard the aircraft, customers can request to move to a different seat if there is room and weight and balance is not an issue. Also, all passengers will be required to wear a mask or else face removal and a ban.

American can’t afford to social distance

Social distancing onboard aircraft means blocking out middle seats and seats up front. The sweet spot for that is about 60%. For airlines, however, the break-even load factor is above 70%. This creates a problem for airlines.

American Airlines 737 Getty
American Airlines lost $2.2 billion in the first quarter. Photo: Getty Images

Up until now, there were not as many people traveling. So, with most of AA’s flights going out under-booked, the airline could offer social distancing without losing out on revenue. Now, however, things are changing.

The United States air travel market continues to see a recovery, and the airline is also increasing its schedules around the globe. With load factors going up, American will lose out on revenue if it does social distance. After losing over $2 billion in the first quarter of 2020, there is little room for error at AA.

One solution to this came from the union representing AA’s pilots. They wanted to see the United States government buy middle seats on flights. That, however, seems like a very long shot.