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A senator wants to ban middle seats after finding himself on a packed flight during the pandemic


Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on a crowded American Airlines flight this month. (Courtesy of Sen. Jeff Merkley)

One day after American Airlines resumed booking flights to capacity, ending its effort to cap the number of passengers on board in response to the pandemic, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) experienced the policy change firsthand.

Instead of finding his connecting flight to Texas mostly empty, as he had flying American recently, Merkley saw passengers shoulder to shoulder.

“They’re breathing inches from your own nose and mouth, they’re taking off their mask to eat or to drink,” Merkley told The Washington Post. “It feels like a pretty high-risk situation."

Merkley, wary of contracting the coronavirus en route to his Oregon home where his mother lives in hospice, tweeted a selfie showing the lack of social distancing on his flight and called the airline “incredibly irresponsible.”

Many Twitter users replied with outrage against American Airlines, and some questioned why members of the government like Merkley couldn’t do something about the issue. A day later, the senator announced on Twitter that he would introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through the coronavirus pandemic.

“These airlines are only flying because we’re subsidizing them, because we think they’re essential,” Merkley said. “If they’re essential, then we should do everything we can to make them safe for the people who are using them.”

In response to Merkley’s tweet, American Airlines shared a statement with The Post last week that said: “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.” On the topic of the middle seat bill specifically, they referred questions to Airlines for America, a trade association representing most of the country’s major airlines, including American. Katherine Estep, the group’s communications director, said in an emailed statement to The Post that U.S. airlines are notifying passengers if social distancing won’t be feasible on their flight.

With the Senate out of session, Merkley says his team is trying to understand what leverage they have on the airlines as it crafts the bill.

“The money that’s already been lent out to airlines may be under a contractual form that is hard to modify, but I’m sure there are other strategies, other incentives or penalties that might be possible if the airlines choose to [book full flights]," Merkley said.

As far as his confidence in turning the bill into law, Merkley says he’ll need outside voices and pressure to help the process.

“It is going to be public attention and outcry that is going to have a huge factor, both on members of Congress ... and upon the companies thinking about their reputation and their customer relationships,” Merkley said.

Merkley joins other government officials in expressing concern over American Airlines ending their in-flight social distancing efforts.

At a Senate panel last week, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the decision “something that is of concern,” while Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said American Airlines’ decision is under critical review by the CDC.

In-flight physical distancing is clearly recommended in the Transportation Department’s Runway to Recovery plan, which states that “airlines should consider the feasibility of limiting seat availability to enable passengers to maintain social distance from each other during the flight,” because “maximum risk reduction results from maintaining a social distance of six feet between passengers.”

The passing of a bill like Merkley’s could bring more consistency in airlines’ coronavirus-focused health and safety precautions, as U.S. airlines have approached the issue differently throughout the pandemic.

Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines plan to continue limiting passengers on board “in some cases, through September.” United Airlines and Spirit Airlines have not attempted socially distanced seating.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that American Airlines declined to comment for the piece. The airline provided a comment regarding the senator’s tweet, and referred questions about the proposed bill specifically to Airlines for America.

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