Airlines are still flying crowded planes, and travelers are worried

The evening before her DC-bound flight on April 26, Libby L. called American Airlines to inquire how full the plane would be. The 29-year-old New York City resident, who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, wanted to know if she would have another passenger sitting beside her and if the airline would seat travelers according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines. She was heading to the DC metropolitan area to stay indefinitely with her mom, who’s recovering from severe laryngitis.

“I was told American Airlines was doing their best to social distance passengers, and it sounded like people would be seated in every other row or seat,” Libby told me of her customer service call. “The representative did say someone would be sitting beside me, but that I could ask the gate agent to change my seat because my flight wasn’t sold out.”

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a historic slowdown in air travel: Airlines are reportedly flying planes with much smaller passenger loads, decreasing the number of available flight routes, and offering absurdly affordable fares. More than 300 million people in 42 states are under state or local stay-at-home orders, and yet every day, hundreds of thousands of travelers like Libby are still flying in the United States. That number is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2 million-plus travelers the Transportation Security Administration used to screen daily before the coronavirus pandemic, but flights are still filling up — some close to capacity, according to passengers. Libby approximates her own was about 85 percent full.

A masked man stands up in a semi-crowded plane cabin.
An image of Libby’s flight from New York to Washington, DC. She said it was “the most respectful” flight she’d ever been on.
Courtesy of Libby L.

American and JetBlue announced on April 28 that the carriers would require all passengers to wear a mask before boarding and are continuing to thoroughly disinfect their aircraft. Alaska Airlines said it will keep all middle seats vacant in economy class throughout May.

Over the weekend, American Airlines was criticized for operating flights that appeared to be nearly at capacity, with passengers forced to sit close to each other. A Twitter video of a North Carolina-bound flight from New York showed almost every seat in the main cabin occupied. The woman who posted the clip was sitting in a middle seat and wrote, “I’ve never felt less safe or cared for in my entire life.” Another American passenger, who recently flew from Miami to New York City, told the New York Post that nearly half the people on her crammed flight were not wearing masks.

Since late March, the US has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and recently surpassed 1 million confirmed cases. In these circumstances, the most responsible thing to do is stay where you are and travel only if you have to. People across the country have been fleeing high-density cities for rural areas, a phenomenon that has potentially contributed to community spread in smaller towns.

However, most of the recent travelers I spoke with considered their flights essential: Libby was helping take care of her sick mom; a couple was returning home to New York after being stuck in Florida for several weeks; and a Denver-based author was visiting a relative undergoing emergency surgery. They assured me they took the risk of coronavirus seriously by wearing masks and gloves on flights, wiping down their personal spaces, and trying their best to distance themselves from others. Some felt, though, that the airlines didn’t do enough to promote safety and social distancing among passengers and crew members.

When Libby arrived at her terminal in LaGuardia Airport and found her flight fairly full, she wasn’t able to change her seat. “I travel frequently, and this was one of the calmest boardings I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Most of the rows ahead of me were two people per side of the aisle and were full, and I had a person sitting next to me.” As a passenger, Libby “felt misled” by the conversation she had with the American Airlines, adding that if she was shown a photo of the final seating arrangement, she “wouldn’t have boarded the plane.”

Curtis Blessing, an airline spokesperson, didn’t directly respond to my question about whether American was implementing social distancing guidelines or specifically capping the number of passengers on its flights. “On flights through May 31, American is limiting the number of passengers on each aircraft,” Blessing wrote to me via email. “As part of this limit, American will not assign 50 percent of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats on every flight, and will only use those middle seats when necessary.” He added that gate agents are continuing to reassign seats to create more space between customers, and passengers are offered “options to create more room, including rebooking on other flights.”

A senior couple who’d been residing in West Palm Beach, Florida, for the past couple of months had booked multiple Southwest flights trying to get back home to Long Island, New York, according to their daughter Caroline, who I spoke with on Twitter. Several of their earlier flights had been canceled, and they were finally able to fly in on April 28.

Caroline, who didn’t travel with her parents, posted on Twitter to complain that Southwest didn’t comply with social distancing measures on her family’s flight. What was even more egregious, in her opinion, was that flight attendants were not masked or requiring passengers to wear masks. “I understand my parents made the risky decision to fly, but the conditions are beyond unsafe and do not comply with what the CDC has required,” Mull told me.

A crowded plane with elderly masked people.
The Southwest flight Caroline’s parents were on, flying from Florida to New York.
Courtesy of Caroline/@camullz on Twitter

Brian Parrish, a Southwest spokesperson, responded via email that flight attendants are encouraged “to invite customers to space out at comfortable distances” if empty seats are available. He added that the carrier has an open seating policy that makes social distancing easier, and customers have been asked to not occupy the first or last three rows to separate themselves from crew members.

“We haven’t announced plans to limit capacity at the present time; although, our CEO did mention in today’s earnings call that the measure is under consideration to support social distancing,” Parrish wrote, adding that passengers are boarding in smaller groups so they can maintain distance. Flight attendants are also allowed to wear face masks and are offered personal protective equipment by the airline, according to Parrish.

US airlines decreased their commercial flight routes by more than 60 percent by late April, according to global travel data provider OAG. With reduced service, it’s possible there are now fewer options travelers can choose from, which could lead to more crowded planes. Two Delta passengers I recently spoke with, however, said that the carrier did a good job in spacing out passengers on their flights.

Tone Frink, a 28-year-old Atlanta resident who was visiting his daughter in Orlando, Florida, said that after settling in on the plane, he felt relaxed since most passengers were taking precautions. “I chose to travel over the health risk at hand, but I did feel safe and comfortable enough to return home,” Frink told me over Twitter. Almost everyone on board was wearing a mask, and he felt that Delta had “a safe layout plan” for travelers.

Angie Cavallari, an author and Denver resident, took a Delta flight on April 16 to be with her aunt in Atlanta, who was undergoing emergency surgery. Cavallari told me there were only 25 to 30 people on her first flight, and Delta allowed her and other passengers seated in the back rows to board early. While on board, she was given a plastic bag with pre-packed snacks, a water bottle, and anti-bacterial wipes, and Cavallari added that “this was the cleanest” plane she’d ever been on. Flight attendants and about half of the passengers were wearing masks.

“I thought Delta did an excellent job,” Cavallari said. “My assigned seat, whether it was deliberate or not, happened to be at the back of the plane and I was beyond 6 feet away from anyone else. The majority of the people were also seated at the front of the airplane.” While her return flight on April 20 was more crowded, Cavallari told me she was seated far away from anyone else and wasn’t worried.

“I don’t want to speak to the other airlines, but I do want to say that if a company follows the guidelines put forth, people should be able to travel safely,” she said. While most people are isolating in their homes, Cavallari acknowledged that in certain situations, some people still need to travel. “I wouldn’t advise anyone sick or with a compromised immune system to fly, but if I really had to fly tomorrow, the pandemic wouldn’t deter me from doing so.”


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