American Airlines will resume booking flights to capacity, as COVID-19 cases soar

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American Airlines will resume booking its flights to capacity starting July 1st, the company has announced. The policy is similar to that of United Airlines, which ABC News reports has never blocked out seats or put a cap on the capacity of its flights. However, the approach contrasts sharply with other airlines, who are continuing to enforce capacity caps in order to allow for in-plane social distancing as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is on the rise.

The airline industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with passenger numbers plummeting. The Chicago Sun Times reports that at its lowest point in April, American Airlines’ passenger numbers were down by around 95 percent. Although passenger bookings have since increased, the number of people passing through US airports is still a quarter of what it was a year ago.

American Airlines started limiting bookings to around 85 percent of a plane’s capacity in April, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

United CEO Scott Kirby has cast doubt on whether social distancing is even possible on planes, Chicago Sun Times reports, since people are less than six feet away from one another, even when middle seats are left empty. The Boston Globe reports that American’s CEO Doug Parker has expressed similar concerns. However, a union representative from the Allied Pilots Association, countered that this “doesn’t mean you surrender to it and throw the airplane out there with every seat filled.”

American says it has other measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. It will notify customers if they’re booked onto crowded flights and will give them the option of moving their reservation at no extra cost, and at check-in will ask customers to certify that they’ve been free of COVID-19 symptoms for the previous 14 days. Customers will also be allowed to move seats once boarded, subject to limitations. American is taking other safeguards like more thorough cleaning, HEPA filters to clean the air more frequently, and a mandatory face mask requirement.

Multiple airlines are requiring passengers to wear face masks. Earlier this month, a group of major US airlines — including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, and Southwest — made face coverings mandatory for all passengers, with exceptions made for eating or drinking, young children, or people with a medical reason or disability that prevented them from wearing a mask.

While American and United are proceeding without capacity limits, other airlines will maintain theirs throughout the summer. Delta is capping seating at 60 percent in the main cabin and 50 percent in first class through September 30th, along with blocking middle seats, ABC News reports. Southwest Airlines is blocking out middle seats over the same time period, while JetBlue is blocking middle seats through the end of July.

The announcement comes as the US is seeing an uptick in new COVID-19 cases. Yesterday, the COVID Tracking Project said that there were 42,000 new cases of the virus in the country, following three record days of new cases. Although more testing explains part of the increase, the percentage of positive tests is also trending upwards, according to data from John Hopkins University.

“I can’t imagine a worse time to tell passengers that the airplanes they may be on will be completely full,” a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, a union representing American Airlines’ pilots, told the Chicago Sun Times, noting that the move could harm public confidence in flying.

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