American Airlines ends ‘goal’ of emptier flights

As American Airlines tried to tempt nervous travellers back on to its flights last month, it said it had a “goal” to leave half of main cabin middle seats open and allow passengers a little social distancing.

It is abandoning that goal next week.

The Fort Worth, Texas, airline said on Friday that “customers may notice flights booked to capacity starting July 1”.

The declaration came even as the number of new coronavirus cases in the US sets new daily records and Americans re-examine the push to lift lockdown requirements and encourage economic activity to resume. Airlines, haemorrhaging money after cutting flights to the bone, are struggling to weigh up new safety protocols and the need to restore their battered finances.

American, like United Airlines, never officially stopped booking middle seats to allow passengers greater room. Rivals Delta and Southwest both restricted capacity on their planes.

“Despite all the discussion of blocking middle seats, on Twitter there have been plenty of pictures of full flights on American and United,” said Scott Hamilton, head of aviation consultancy and news site Leeham.

American’s website said that “when time and flights permit, gate agents may reassign seats to create more space between customers”. An asterisk adds: “Not guaranteed.”

American is allowing customers to change their tickets without a fee for travel scheduled between now and September 30, although they must pay the difference between fares.

It is also creating a travel health advisory panel with Vanderbilt University Medical Center “to advise on health and cleaning”.

Meanwhile, changing airline policies remains fraught. American banned conservative activist Brandon Straka, who refused to comply with the airline’s requirement to wear a mask on board. A reporter for the New York Times, who was on the same flight, noted online that when Mr Straka left the plane at the request of the crew, the remaining passengers applauded.

The incident underlines that several factors make it difficult to follow health and safety protocols during a trip, Mr Hamilton said. Passengers cannot control the behaviour of fellow travellers, and often they are bunched together during boarding and deplaning, or in airport security lines.

“Distancing rules are six feet,” he said. “Anybody who has ever been on an airplane knows there has never been six feet between armrests. You’re lucky if you have 18 inches.”

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American reported a $2.2bn loss in the first quarter, as the pandemic gripped Europe and the US. Worse losses are expected for the industry when airlines begin to report second-quarter financials. American is still burning $40m in cash a day, although that is down from a high of $100m in April.

The airline was in the financial markets this week raising $4.5bn through a combination of debt, equity and convertible notes.

Investors snapped up the company’s bonds at interest rates of 11.75 per cent. The offering leaves the airline, already the most leveraged among the major US carriers, with $36.6bn in debt.

It will add another $4.75bn when it receives an expected low-interest loan from the second tranche of an airline industry bailout approved by the US government in March.