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American, United Airlines Will Go Back To Packing Flights Despite Covid-19 Coronavirus

Exsqueeze me?

The U.S. just experienced the highest one-day totals of new reported Covid-19 coronavirus cases since April. What then will United Airlines and American Airlines be doing starting in July? How about going back to fully booking their flights and in turn squeezing people closer together?

Yep, that’s apparently what both airlines have chosen to do. Just take a look at this tweet:

Not 80%. Not 90%, But 100%. If you can’t quite read the section of the June 26 American Airlines statement accompanying the tweet above without a magnifying glass, here are the first couple sentences: “As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1. American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost.”

Uh, “book to capacity” on an airplane is not exactly social distancing. In fact, it can be quite the opposite, more like social nearing or social squeezing or social “your-elbow-is-on-my-elbow”-ing.

When it comes to the Covid-19 coronavirus, proper social distancing means staying at least one Ryan Gosling (who is six feet tall) away from all others. Keep in mind that this would be a lying Gosling, meaning a Gosling lying on the ground rather than standing or sitting. Unless United Airlines and American Airlines have somehow drastically changed the design of their planes, you can’t fit one Gosling between each of the seats. Heck you may not even be able to fit a regular gosling (the feathered kind) in those spaces.

Back in May, I wrote for Forbes about how a United Airlines flight didn’t seemed to follow the company’s promised social distancing guidelines. A doctor on board had tweeted a United Airlines statement that middle seats would be blocked to provide enough spacing between people. The doctor also tweeted a photo from the flight that showed what was actually blocking these middle seats: other people. As a reminder, here’s that tweet:

Doesn’t seem like you could fit too many Goslings between people on that flight. Seeing this on social media left numerous people wondering whether they should trust any future assurances from the airline that the middle seats would remain empty. Well, apparently starting next week there won’t be need to wonder anymore. Expect those middle seats to be filled if the airline can fill them.

Would this really be a good idea with a number of states having surges in Covid-19 coronavirus cases, including big states like Texas, California, and Florida? Will this change be “plane” risky? After all, with the Covid-19 coronavirus still spreading and the first wave never really ending, isn’t there a good chance that at least some contagious people will make it on to United and American Airlines planes?

Well, the American Airlines announcement seemed to try to reassure passengers that other measures will prevent Covid-19 coronavirus transmission. Notice of the booking policy change did not come at the beginning of the announcement. Rather it was in the fifth of the announcement’s seven sections. The first several sections covered other things such as the cleaning and disinfection procedures that will be employed and the use of HEPA filtration systems on the planes. They also stated that passengers will be offered sanitizing wipes or gel and that food and beverage delivery will be limited, the latter of which could save costs for the airlines as well.

Additionally, according to the announcement, the airline will “limit flight privileges for customers who refuse to wear a face covering without a medical reason.” It’s not completely clear what “limit flight privileges” will mean. There may be a fair amount of wiggle room, just like “limiting bathroom privileges” rarely means you can never ever go to the bathroom again. Regardless, the announcement claimed that “wearing a face covering continues to be one of the most important ways travelers can protect themselves and others while flying.” One of the most important is a reasonable statement, although wearing a face covering is more to protect others from you than you from others.

These are all good infection prevention measures to have in place. It’s certainly better to hear that the planes will be cleaned more thoroughly than a bachelor’s pad. But will all of these measures really be enough to protect you from the Covid-19 coronavirus? If you wear just a necktie, a beret, boots, and a scarf, you still are leaving yourself quite exposed. Similarly, even with all of those measures in place, you could still end up sitting very close to someone who is contagious for one, two, three, or more hours in a crowded indoor environment.

Face coverings may help with briefer exposures. But the longer you remain in closer contact, the greater the chance that something will end up leaking out through the face covering. Plus wearing a face covering for such a lengthy period of time can be challenging without having to occasionally adjust and maybe even take off the covering. Heck there are people who complain about even a 10 minute visit to a coffee shop.

The American Airlines announcement mentioned another new policy as well. Starting June 30, they will require passengers to certify during the check-in process that they “have been free of COVID-19 symptoms for the past 14 days.” But how people will this process really catch? How many people will be at the check-in stage and say, “oh, thanks for the reminder. That’s right I do have Covid-19 symptoms. What was I thinking? I had better not fly right now.” Plus, a sizable proportion (somewhere between 30% and 60%) of people who are contagious don’t even have symptoms. They may never have symptoms or be on their way to developing symptoms.

All of these other measures won’t fully compensate for the one thing that you shouldn’t be doing these days, staying very close to others for an extended period time in an enclosed location. In fact, many of these measures work a whole lot better when combined with social distancing.

It’s unlikely that public health experts approached the airlines and said, “hey, you know what would be great? Start packing your airplanes to full capacity.” Instead, chances are revenue considerations are driving these changes. As the following tweet shows, as long as government bodies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) don’t offer more specific guidance or even regulations, each airline may make decisions based on management and shareholder business interests:

Yeah, these changes don’t seem to be airing on the side of caution. We’ve already seen how hastily re-opening businesses may have led to surges in Covid-19 coronavirus cases in various states. Many businesses have had to close back down as a result. Could something similar happen with hastily re-opening airplane seats?

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