American Airlines taking full flights during COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus

FILE – In this March 31, 2020 file photo American Airlines planes are parked at Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa. Shares of American Airlines posted a record percentage gain Thursday, June 4, 2020 after the carrier said it will aggressively add back flights in July — a bet that the slow recovery in air travel will gain speed this summer as states re-open their economies. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — On Friday, American Airlines announced it won’t be blocking middle seats anymore.

Since April, the airline had been capping the number of passengers on aircraft to 85% capacity. However, starting next Wednesday, July 1, the airline will no longer cap the number of open seats — and that decision is raising some alarms in light of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

American Airlines says since April they’ve been working to increase cleanings and implement new safety measures for passengers which include disinfecting every aircraft, including hand-cleaning seat buckles, sets tray tables and other surfaces and implementing a face covering requirement for all passengers and employees. 

Now that they have those in place, the airline says it’s ready to let flights get back up to 100% capacity. Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says he’s not surprised by the move, but he is disappointed.

“American Airlines has a lot of debt. They’ve seen their revenues fall like all other airlines, so I’m not surprised they are trying to sell as many seats during the peak summer season as they can; but it’s a disappointing decision none the less,” Harteveldt said.

Since April, American Airlines had been capping the number of passengers on each flight, blocking middle seats in the name of social distancing. The airline says its average load for the month of June was about 63%, but with the holiday weekend coming, they expect that percentage to rise.

American released a statement to our sister station saying, in part: 

“We expect a busy weekend around the July 4th holiday. The load factor cap was instituted before we had implemented multiple layers of protection for customers, which includes clean airports and planes, healthy team members and requirements for customers — and those who service them – to wear face coverings. With all of these layers of protection we are comfortable removing the load factor cap put in place back in April.”

Henry Harteveldt says, the timing of this move could end up hurting the airline in the long run.

“American is clearly showing they value profits over people,” Harteveldt said. “If passengers are concerned about flying, as they are now, and if passengers have fears and trust ​issues about traveling as we do now, airlines need to respect that and try to make us feel confident about traveling. American is not doing that, other airlines are.”

Currently Southwest, Delta and JetBlue are still blocking middle seats or restricting the number of seats for sale on each flight. United Airlines has never implemented measures to cap flight capacity — the CEO has said there’s no such thing as social distancing on a plane. 

American is offering flexibility for passengers — alerting them if their flight is reaching capacity and giving them the option to change it. However, some passengers say the options they have been given are on flights that are just as full. 

American says so far only about 4% of passengers who have gotten the option to change their flights have chosen to do so.

American Airlines says since April they’ve been working to increase cleanings and implement new safety measures.

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