Anthony Fauci has questioned American Airlines’s decision to book passengers in middle seats, adding the voice of a leader of the White House coronavirus task force to a growing criticism of the move.
Dr Fauci’s warning, delivered at a Capitol Hill hearing, came as one of American’s leading trade unions, the Allied Pilots Association, asked the US government to buy seats on American flights to avoid passengers sitting next to each other.
“That is something that is of concern,” Dr Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate hearing. “I’m not sure exactly what went into that decision.”
American Airlines, 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 major US carriers, partly because of aggressive share buybacks in recent years. It had $34bn in debt at the end of the first quarter.
Dr Fauci’s criticism was shared by Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said under Senate questioning that while the issue 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,” Mr Redfield said. “We don’t think it’s the right message.”
American said in a statement: ““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 — and we’re providing additional flexibility for customers to change their travel plans, as well.”
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.
Eric Ferguson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, suggested that a decision to fly aircraft at full capacity would have the opposite effect — scaring off potential passengers — and called on the federal government to step in.
“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.
As part of a renewed effort to stem the new outbreak, Dr Fauci and Dr Redfield urged Americans to wear masks — breaking from President Donald Trump, who has shown little enthusiasm for requiring face coverings.
“It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of Covid-19 and embrace the universal use of face coverings,” Dr Redfield told senators.
Dr Fauci said he was disturbed at images he had seen of people failing to follow social distancing. “When you’re outside and do not have the capability of maintaining distance, you should wear a mask at all times,” he said.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said the US government had “parallel messaging operations” because Mr Trump was not urging Americans to follow the guidelines laid out by his own public health experts.
Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate committee, also urged people to wear masks.
At the hearing, Dr Fauci said there was “no guarantee” there would be an effective vaccine for Covid-19, but that he was “cautiously optimistic” that one would be developed based on information from early trials.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi