Don’t trust air­lines to pro­tect us against the coro­n­avirus

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - LAURA WASH­ING­TON lauraswash­ing­ | @Me­di­aDervish Laura Wash­ing­ton is a colum­nist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst for ABC7-Chicago.

Amer­i­can Air­lines has an­nounced it has started sell­ing flights to ca­pac­ity as of July 1. The air­line no longer will hold mid­dle seats open. The air­line is “aban­don­ing caps on pas­sen­ger loads that were de­signed to pro­mote so­cial dis­tanc­ing amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic,” Bloomberg re­ported. Even as COVID-19 was spik­ing in Texas, Ari­zona and Florida.

Come on. The air­line started that long ago, at least from my ex­pe­ri­ence.

As they say in church, I am a wit­ness. Three weeks ago, with great trep­i­da­tion, I flew Amer­i­can.

It was a nec­es­sary trip, and life is about tak­ing cal­cu­lated risks, I rea­soned. I did my home­work, study­ing news and in­for­ma­tion about the air­lines. They all de­clared they were tak­ing great care to re­quire masks, keep mid­dle seats open and de­ploy stren­u­ous clean­ing pro­to­cols.

I ar­rived at an eerily empty O’Hare Air­port two hours early. Many restau­rants and con­ces­sions were closed. I sat on my fu­ri­ously scrubbed hands at the gate, I wore two masks. My carry-on was loaded with more masks, al­co­hol-soaked wipes and hand san­i­tizer.

Board­ing time came. To my hor­ror, the plane was fill­ing up . . . and fill­ing, and fill­ing. By take­off, every seat around me was taken, in­clud­ing the mid­dle seats.

Every pas­sen­ger boarded wear­ing a mask. Dur­ing the flight, not so much. Two peo­ple in the row in front of me took theirs off for most of the 2½-hour jour­ney. The flight at­ten­dants took no no­tice. I sur­vived the or­deal, and thank­fully re­main healthy.

Even be­fore Amer­i­can launched its “new” dis­tanc­ing pol­icy, the plane was crowded, for hours, in the air.

Now the air­line says cus­tomers still will be no­ti­fied when they are booked on crowded flights and can move their reser­va­tions at no cost.

It is il­log­i­cal, un­rea­son­able, and dis­hon­est for air­lines to sug­gest they can be trusted to pro­tect our safety. I am not alone in that view.

Amer­i­can’s new no-dis­tanc­ing pol­icy has trig­gered a back­lash from the unions, in­dus­try ex­perts and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.


I-Vt., blasted Amer­i­can dur­ing a hear­ing of the Se­nate’s Com­mit­tee on Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions.

“You’re go­ing to have peo­ple go­ing from New York to Cal­i­for­nia, five or six hours, sit­ting inches apart from each other,” San­ders told the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases Di­rec­tor An­thony Fauci and CDC Di­rec­tor Robert Red­field.

“Why hasn’t the gov­ern­ment, whether it’s the CDC or the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, is­sued guide­lines, pro­hibit­ing those vi­o­la­tions of what we all know to be com­mon sense?” San­ders asked.

“I can tell you that when they an­nounced that the other day, ob­vi­ously there was sub­stan­tial dis­ap­point­ment with Amer­i­can

Air­lines,” Dr. Red­field replied.

Amer­i­can has re­ceived $5.8 bil­lion from the fed­eral Pay­roll Sup­port Pro­gram to help keep it fi­nan­cially afloat dur­ing the pan­demic. Other air­lines also won plen­ti­ful tax­payer aid. All pledged to take ag­gres­sive steps to pro­tect their pas­sen­gers and staff from this treach­er­ous virus.

Amer­i­can re­sponded to my com­plaint in a state­ment:

“As we stated back in March, Amer­i­can will not as­sign 50% of main cabin mid­dle seats or seats near flight at­ten­dant jump seats on every flight, and will only use those mid­dle seats when nec­es­sary.”

On face cov­er­ings, Amer­i­can said: “The safety and well-be­ing of our cus­tomers and team mem­bers is our high­est pri­or­ity. Amer­i­can, like other U.S. air­lines, re­quires cus­tomers to wear a face cov­er­ing while on board, and this re­quire­ment is en­forced at the gate while board­ing,” Amer­i­can said. The air­line an­nounces the re­quire­ment both dur­ing board­ing and at de­par­ture, the state­ment added, and some pas­sen­gers are ex­empt, such as young chil­dren and those with a med­i­cal rea­son why they can­not wear a mask. The pol­icy also does not ap­ply while eat­ing or drink­ing.

“We are un­wa­ver­ing in our com­mit­ment to the safety and well-be­ing of our cus­tomers and team mem­bers. 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. We know our cus­tomers are plac­ing their trust in us to make every as­pect of their jour­ney safe, and we are com­mit­ted to do­ing just that.”

It seems that in the air, cash re­mains king. Why give up a few seats to bol­ster our safety when you can haul in a few more bucks?

United has adopted a sim­i­lar, fly-full pol­icy. To their credit, Delta Air­lines and South­west Air­lines have pledged to keep mid­dle seats open un­til the fall.

The gov­ern­ment must crack down on the prof­i­teers.

If the air­lines view some pre­cau­tions in a pan­demic as op­tional, can we rely on them to keep their planes safely up in the air?


Amer­i­can Air­lines says it is now sell­ing flights to ca­pac­ity de­spite the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

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