American Airlines to End Middle-Seat Blocking, Will Now Fill Flights to Capacity

American Airlines announced today that it plans to end its middle-seat blocking practices that were first instituted in the name of social distancing back in April, when passenger travel demand had hit its lowest point amid the pandemic in the U.S.

Up until now, in a move adopted by most U.S. airlines, American had blocked about half of its economy-class middle seats, meaning that sales for each flight had been limited to around 85-percent capacity. Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are maintaining their middle-seat blocking practices for now, with Southwest even having committed to continuing them through the end of September 2020.

“As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1,” the airline said in a statement. “American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost.”

“We felt it prudent to notify all customers that flights are going to be busier,” American Airlines spokesman, Ross Feinstein, told USA Today. The move parallels one recently announced by United Airlines and, also similarly, American says that it will do its best to notify customers is their flight is likely to be full in order to enable them to rebook aboard less-packed departures.

Passengers will also be permitted to change seats within the same cabin if they’re uncomfortable, provided that there’s an open spot once their flight has fully boarded.

As of next week, customers can expect to once again get up close and personal with their fellow flyers while seated on board. Which might make consumers uncomfortable (let’s face it, when was it ever comfortable?), but does being seated directly next to someone really pose a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, especially given elevated disinfection practices, in-cabin HEPA air filtration, mandated wearing of masks aboard flights and airlines’ other targeted measures taken?

United Airlines’ CEO, Scott Kirby, doesn’t think so—he has already publicly opined that there’s no such thing as effective social distancing aboard an airplane, the Associated Press reported. He argued that, even with middle seating eliminated, people are seated less than six feet apart from one another.

Given the slew of other safety measures that are now in place in airports and aircraft cabins aimed at stemming the tide of contagion, Feinstein said, “We believe it is safe to go back to our normal capacity.”

The timing of American’s announcement could, perhaps, have been better, given that the U.S.’ number of confirmed, new COVID-19 cases reached an all-time high of 40,000 today, surpassing the previous record number seen on April 24, 2020. The relaxation of community lockdown measures and restrictions on movement, in an effort to revive economies across America, has doubtlessly contributed to the rise in the rate of new infections.

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