A US senator wants to propose legislation blocking middle seats on planes after he flew on a crowded American Airlines flight
- US Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon is planning to introduce legislation to require US airlines to block middle seats on their aircraft.
- Merkley was flying on American Airlines on Thursday when he grew frustrated with the airline's lack of social distancing policies and blasted them on Twitter.
- After the tweet went viral with nearly 40,000 likes, Merkley followed up by saying he'll work with other legislators to include the middle seat mandate in a larger airline reform bill.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The US government is about to weigh in on whether airlines should block middle seats after a senator flew on a crowded flight Thursday that prompted him to take action.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon was flying on an American Airlines flight just before the holiday weekend and saw firsthand the airline's lack of social distancing policies in action. The masked-up Democrat then took to Twitter, where he posted a photo of his flight with a dark message for the airline:
"How many Americans will die bc you fill middle seats, w/ your customers shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour," the Democratic lawmaker wrote. "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."
After receiving nearly 40,000 likes on the platform, Merkley followed up with a tweet saying he would address the issue when he returned to Washington and join an unnamed group of legislators already on airline-related reforms.
"I will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through this pandemic," Merkley said in a July 3 tweet. "And I'll work with colleagues to include it in a package of airline accountability reforms they are crafting."
If Congress passes such a bill and the president signs it into law, it would be the first federal mandate regulating social distancing onboard airliners since the start of the pandemic. Most policy choices have been left up to the airlines, as Business Insider found when reviewing the social distancing policies of the 11 major US airlines, especially whether to mandate face coverings for passengers.
American Airlines had been restricting flights at 85% capacity for the month of June — as Business Insider saw firsthand on two American flights in early June — and recently announced that it will be selling its flights to capacity starting July 1. Two of its main rivals, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines, are taking the opposite approach and blocking middle seats until at least September 30, when provisions of the CARES Act stimulus package are set to expire.
After this weekend, only four US airlines are expected to block middle seats or limit the number of bookings for each flight as JetBlue Airways will no longer follow the practice starting July 7. Alaska Airlines, which has a hub in Merkley's home state of Oregon, is only scheduled to block middle seats until July 31.
Airlines are flying fewer flights, and they're filling up as more Americans travel
The early days of the coronavirus pandemic saw empty flights become commonplace, but they're becoming rare as the busy summer travel season sets in.
Only two days since June 18 saw daily passenger numbers departing from US airports dip under 500,000, according to the Transportation Security Administration, though the agency hasn't posted numbers for July 4 weekend due to the federal holiday.
It's still a fraction from the 2 million flyers taking to the skies the same time last year, but airlines are also flying fewer flights due to the decrease in demand.
American Airlines is operating just over half the number of domestic flights this month as it did in July 2019, but said it will increase its flying schedule on July 7. Rival Delta's July domestic flying is also around 60% less than the same month last year.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, called out American directly during a congressional hearing last week for its lack of social distancing policies, according to The Hill.
"I can tell you that when they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines," Redfield said, The Hill's Tal Axelrod reported. "I can say this is under critical review right now by us at CDC. We don't think it's the right message."
Blocking middle seats does not guarantee social distancing of six feet, as recommended in CDC guidelines, with the average middle seat being less than two feet wide. Airline say other aircraft features, including high-efficiency particulate air filters, are making the skies safe.
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