American Airlines faces pressure over booking middle seats

American Airlines has come under pressure over its decision to book passengers in middle seats, with US public health officials and its own pilots union warning it could hamper efforts to control coronavirus and dissuade passengers from flying.

Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the decision was not “under critical review” by public health authorities, he was unhappy with the move.

“When they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Dr Redfield told a Senate hearing. “We don’t think it’s the right message.”

His view was echoed by Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, who said: “I’m not sure exactly what went into that decision.”

The criticism comes as businesses across the country have been forced to recalibrate their reopening policies in the face of a new outbreak of coronavirus cases in the US south and west.

AMC Theatres, the US’s largest cinema chain, this week pushed back the reopening of 450 venues until the end of July, and Apple has closed retail stories in Florida, Arizona and other southern and western states that it had reopened just weeks ago.

American, unlike some of its US rivals, never officially abandoned booking middle seats to allow passengers to social distance on flights. Instead, it had set a goal of leaving half of those seats open as it tried to woo back nervous flyers. But last week it said that “customers may notice flights booked to capacity starting July 1”.

American is the most heavily indebted of the big US carriers, partly because of aggressive share buybacks in recent years. It had $34bn in debt at the end of the first quarter.

The decision has faced heavy criticism from Democrats, with Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts and former presidential contender, accusing the airline of “recklessly endangering millions of lives just to make a profit”.

American defended the decision, insisting it had implemented sufficient safety measures to mitigate the risk and was providing “additional flexibility” to passengers who wanted to change their travel plans.

“We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including required face coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, and a pre-flight Covid-19 symptom checklist,” the airline said in a statement.

But the Allied Pilots Association, a union representing 15,000 American Airlines pilots, raised its own concerns, warning that passengers would be unwilling to return to flying under American plans to fill aircraft completely.

Eric Ferguson, the union’s president, called on the US government to step in to purchase middle seat bookings as a way to help the airline and reassure passengers.

“Thanks to uniform social distancing, passengers would be encouraged to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure the preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and associated jobs,” said Mr Ferguson.