Democratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed plane

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced Friday he intends to introduce a bill banning the sale of tickets for middle seats on flights for as long as the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the U.S.

Merkley first tore into American Airlines Thursday after he flew on a packed flight, accusing the airline of putting passengers’ lives at risk.

“.@AmericanAir: how many Americans will die bc you fill middle seats, w/ your customers shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour. This is incredibly irresponsible. People eat & drink on planes & must take off masks to do so. No way you aren’t facilitating spread of COVID infections,” he tweeted.

Merkley followed up Friday, saying he’d heard from many people after his initial tweet that the Senate should take action on the issue.

“I will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through this pandemic. And I’ll work with colleagues to include it in a package of airline accountability reforms they are crafting,” he said Friday.

American Airlines did not respond directly to Merkley’s tweets, but did respond to a Twitter user who expressed concern over the Oregon Democrat’s initial tweet, noting it’s “implemented many layers of protection including enhanced cleaning and requiring face coverings.”

Merkley’s remarks come after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Department of Transportation Administrator Stephen Dickson raising concerns over American Airline’s announcement that it will book flights to capacity starting in July. 

“There is universal agreement among scientists and medical experts that social distancing and mask wearing are the two most important and effective tools we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. Yet across the industry, airline policies on mask-wearing and social distancing have been inconsistent, incomplete, and unenforced,” Sanders wrote. 

The airline has said that leaving middle seats open will not effectively blunt the spread of the coronavirus, but Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified in a Senate hearing this week that “there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines.”

“I can tell you that when they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Redfield said. “I can say this is under critical review right now by us at CDC. We don’t think it’s the right message.”

The CDC has issued guidance saying that “although illness may occur as a direct result of air travel, it is uncommon.”

Tags Airlines Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Elaine Chao Jeff Merkley Jeff Merkley Masks Social distancing
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