United States senator, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, expressed some outrage when he flew with American Airlines. His flight was quite full, with many middle seats being taken up, which led to him posting an image of the cabin on Twitter before announcing he would be looking at banning the sale of middle seats throughout the pandemic.
Senator Merkley’s flight
On July 2nd, Senator Merkley posted a scathing tweet that was critical of American’s lack of social distancing onboard the flight:
.@AmericanAir: how many Americans will die bc you fill middle seats, w/ your customers shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour. This is incredibly irresponsible. People eat & drink on planes & must take off masks to do so. No way you aren’t facilitating spread of COVID infections. pic.twitter.com/PWG5macqgC
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 2, 2020
He followed this up on July 3rd:
I will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through this pandemic. And I’ll work with colleagues to include it in a package of airline accountability reforms they are crafting.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 3, 2020
His concerns over American’s practices come just days after Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield expressed concern over American’s announcement that it would be filling aircraft seats to capacity. This comes as the United States experiences a surge in cases across many states, including popular vacation destinations like Florida and Texas.
Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders, who initially posed the issue of American’s policies to Drs. Fauci and Redfield, wrote a letter to Secretary Elaine Chao, the head of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and Stephen Dickson, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator asking them to issue regulations that “limit the maximum capacity of passengers on flights to 67% of available seats.”
Will this happen?
In the polarized United States, where even basic precautions like masks have become a major point of contention, it will take a lot of work to pass any legislation that would limit the sale of middle seats. After the airlines received a big federal assistance package back in April, there was some outrage over airline policies. This included bag fees, seat selection fees, and, of course, concern over whether airlines would social distance or not. Masks on planes did not start to become mandatory until May– even then, enforcement was only tightened up at the end of June.
It’s unclear whether or not there would be enough political support to push forward a measure like this. Airlines will likely lobby intensely against this effort.
Revenue matters more to airlines
The break-even load factor for flights is usually between 70-80% depending on airline, route, aircraft type, and more. Universally, however, 67% likely won’t cut it for most airlines. After posting billions of dollars in losses from the first quarter alone, both American and United have shown no interest in keeping seats blocked off. American reluctantly began to do so as the pandemic unfolded in the US while United Airlines never guaranteed a blocked middle seat.
As more and more people start traveling again, airlines are trying to encourage booking as much as possible. So far, it has been working for American. In the past, American has tried the low fare technique to try and stimulate demand. If the airline does block middle seats, it will have to make up that lost revenue somewhere and increase fares.
One suggestion put forth by American’s pilots urged the federal government to buy up the airline’s middle seats. That, however, would be an expensive price tag, and other airlines would likely want a similar program in place universally to also take advantage of guaranteed seat sales.
A tale of two airline approaches
In the US, there are, essentially, two different approaches to the middle seat during the pandemic. Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest are doubling down on social distancing by blocking middle seats. Delta and Southwest are even blocking those middle seats through the fall. On the other hand, airlines like American and United are rejecting that notion.
The blocked middle seat does not get even close to the six feet of physical separation that health professionals are recommending. What it does do, however, is reinforce a brand image. Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest are looking to make flying comfortable for people who are concerned about the pandemic– even if it does lead to some revenue loss. Undoubtedly, one of the goals these airlines have is to build up additional brand loyalty by showing its passengers that they did care during the pandemic, even if the six feet of distance was not maintained.
American and United, on the other hand, have gone more after revenue. Kirby at United, known for his intense focus on revenue, naturally would be someone to balk at the idea of not selling all the seats onboard a plane. American, meanwhile, has tried to score passengers by competing with low-cost carriers on price.
While some may be confused as to why an airline would choose to go after revenue now instead of building up brand loyalty that could drive an airline to profitability for the next few years, then American has some answers. A recent customer survey put out by AA, which surveyed over 100,000 AAdvantage members in the US, showed what those fliers cared about. First up was the impact on small and local businesses, followed by concerns about the general economy and, in third place, the health of friends and family members. Essentially, the results showed American that it could go after revenue without necessarily losing a large number of frequent fliers.
American has, however, undertaken some substantial steps to limit the potential for viral transmission onboard its aircraft. This includes mandating masks, and providing for some penalties if a passenger does not comply. It also uses an electrostatic spray inside airplanes every seven days. At the same time, the carrier is also hand-cleaning seats, seat buckles, tray tables, and more. Inside the aircraft, the planes are also equipped with HEPA filters, which help purify an aircraft cabin’s air. All of the airline’s mainline fleet is equipped with these filters.
At the end of the day, major US airlines have not seen a mass number of employees become infected with coronavirus– especially among inflight personnel. Ultimately, each person will have to decide for themselves whether or they want to fly and which airline they do want to take a trip with.
Do you think the US government should ban the sale of middle seats during this pandemic? Let us know in the comments!