U.S. Airlines Are Ignoring the Need for Social Distancing by Flying at Capacity

By Valery Collins | May 21, 2020

Most businesses in the USA are required to operate at significantly reduced occupancy to comply with social distancing guidelines.  However, it has come to light that U.S. Airlines are failing to comply by operating flights at capacity or close to it.  How has this been allowed to happen?

Empty Airport Terminal Building

No National Policy for Airlines in the USA

There has never been any doubt that enforcing social distancing on board an aircraft would be a challenge.  A dramatic reduction followed a drop in demand for services.  It follows that the re-introduction of some services could match an increase in demand.  But the airlines are choosing not to do that.  They prefer to put Americans at risk regarding exposure to COVID-19.  Airlines have not been part of the policy-making concerning land-based businesses and transport in the United States.  The result is that different airlines are imposing different rules.

Delta is limiting seats in first class to 50% of capacity, 60% in the main cabin and blocking off middle seats.  American Airlines has announced it will not assign 50% of main cabin middle seats or seats near cabin crew seats.  But there is no limit on bookings, and it reserves the right to use the middle seats if it becomes necessary.  So, some flights are operating at capacity.  United Airlines seems to have no policy.  But, it will allow passengers to rebook or receive a travel credit if they are have booked on a plane close to full capacity.  They have promised that throughout June they will do their best to notify customers about a day in advance if their flight that is more than 70 per cent full. Those with concerns can book a different flight or receive a travel credit.

Enforcing Safety Measures on Board a Plane

Face Masks Must be Worn on Flights Credit: Marco Verch

It is not clear why, following an initial reluctance to fly, demand has suddenly increased.  One theory is that the expectation of empty planes has acted as an incentive – and this remains true of many flights.  Anger is mounting.  Passengers are complaining that the airlines are not doing enough to promote safety and social distancing.

The failure to apply social distancing is not the only complaint.  All airlines now require passengers to wear face masks.  Airlines can deny boarding to anyone who is not wearing a face mask (some will provide them).  However, Reuters recently reported that the American Airlines Group Inc. had instructed their flight attendants not to force passengers to wear face masks.  Their reasoning – once passengers are inside the plane enforcement becomes more difficult.  Failure to comply with this requirement does not amount to severe disruption.  They are to encourage the wearing of masks through regular announcements and to offer alternative seating where possible.

Is it time for government intervention?

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