American Airlines, United Airlines end social distancing, will book flights to full capacity

‘I can’t imagine a worse time to tell passengers that the airplanes they may be on will be completely full,’ a pilots union spokesman said.

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Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt said American Airlines “is clearly putting its profitability ahead” of the health of passengers and its own employees. American Airlines planes are seen here at O’Hare Airport.

Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt said American Airlines “is clearly putting its profitability ahead” of the health of passengers and its own employees. American Airlines planes are seen here at O’Hare Airport.

Sun-Times file

American Airlines will start booking flights to full capacity in the coming week, ending any effort to promote social distancing on its planes even as the United States sets records for new reported cases of the coronavirus.

American’s move matches the policy of United Airlines but contrasts sharply with rivals that are limiting bookings to create space between passengers to minimize the risk of contagion.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said American “is clearly putting its profitability ahead” of the health of passengers and its own employees.

“Packing an airplane 100% full without health testing in place is a risky business decision,” Harteveldt said. “If someone contracts the COVID-19 virus on a 100% full plane, they’re going to sue American Airlines. Just because another airline is doing it doesn’t mean it’s the right business decision.”

Since April, American has limited bookings to about 85% of a plane’s capacity by leaving about half the middle seats open. Now, starting Wednesday, he airline will start selling every seat it can.

A spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots, said the move could hurt the public’s fragile confidence in flying.

“I can’t imagine a worse time to tell passengers that the airplanes they may be on will be completely full,” said the union spokesman, Dennis Tajer.

The pilots’ union is hoping the airline reconsiders and instead decides to add more flights using idle planes and crews.

American said Friday it will continue to notify customers if their flights are likely to be full and let them change flights at no extra cost. The airline said it also will let passengers change seats on the plane if there is room and if they stay in the same cabin.

Delta says it is capping seats at about 60% of capacity and Southwest at about 67%, both through Sept. 30. JetBlue says it will leave middle seats empty through July 31 unless the person is traveling with a passenger in an adjoining seat.

United, Spirit Airlines and now American, however, are taking a different approach, arguing that other steps — including stepped-up cleaning procedures and requiring all passengers to wear face coverings — eliminate the need to block some seats. United CEO Scott Kirby has said social distancing is impossible on planes anyway; that even with empty middle seats, people are less than six feet away from each other.

Photos and videos of full flights on American and United have drawn criticism for their lack of social distancing.

The number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. hit an all-time high of 40,000 on Friday, eclipsing a record set on April 24, according to Johns Hopkins University. Several of American’s busiest airports are in states with skyrocketing infection rates, including Texas, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

American’s headquarters are in Fort Worth, Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday rolled back some stepsthe state had taken just two months ago in an aggressive attempt to reopen its economy.

Starting Tuesday, American will ask passengers to confirm that they haven’t had COVID-19 symptoms in the previous 14 days.

Travel agent Brett Snyder, who writes a blog called Cranky Flier, said American probably has data to back up its decision from a business perspective.

“If they are making this change to sell every seat, then they know that people talk a lot” about preferring empty middle seats, “but, in the end, they will still fly if the price is right,” Snyder said.

Since April, American offered to rebook people whose flights might be full, but only about 4% of passengers have taken that option, according to the airline.

Snyder said most people flying now are leisure travelers who have decided it’s an acceptable risk. He said rules on face masks, extra cleaning measures and high-efficiency air-filtration systems make planes “a relatively safe place.”

Airlines have been devastated by the pandemic, as travel dropped by about 95% at its low point in April. Since then, traffic has picked up slightly — the number of people passing through security checkpoints at U.S. airports on Thursday was 77% lower than the comparable day a year ago.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the airline has been considering booking to full capacity for a few weeks as passenger numbers have risen. On Monday, American’s traffic was the highest since March, he said.

American has plenty of planes that have been grounded because of the pandemic, and it has idle pilots and flight attendants who must remain on the payroll through September as a condition of federal financial aid.

If a flight will be full, “Why wouldn’t you just put another airplane on?” pilots union spokesman Tajer said.

American is adding flights. Including its American Eagle regional subsidiary, the airline has scheduled 3,479 flights for July, a 60% jump over June but still 48% below last July’s schedule.

Airline revenue has plummeted since early March, forcing the carriers to rely on billions in federal aid and private borrowing to survive until travel recovers, which might not happen until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.

Frontier Airlines tried to charge passengers extra to guarantee they would be next to an empty middle seat. The budget airline was forced to retreatlast month amid accusations it was trying to profit from people’s fear of contracting a deadly virus.

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