Airlines defend moves to full-capacity flights

The airline industry defended American Airlines on Tuesday for its new policy to fill planes to capacity following criticism from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield over concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

Redfield said there was “substantial disappointment with American Airlines” about the move in a Senate hearing on Tuesday following a question from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE (I-Vt.) on the policy. 

Airlines for America (A4A), which represents and advocates for major U.S. airlines, defended the decision to fill planes on the basis that maintaining social distancing isn’t possible on planes anyway. American Airlines is a member of A4A.

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“You can’t social distance on an airplane. We believe there are safety measures in place on a multilevel basis that makes flying safe, in fact safer than many other activities,” A4A CEO Nicholas E. Calio told reporters on a press call following Redfield’s statement.

Calio noted that you can’t socially distance on an airplane like you can at a grocery store.

“We don’t fly people if we feel it is not safe to fly them,” Calio said. “We are taking extraordinary measures, working with public health officials and others to keep our passengers healthy.” 

He also noted American Airlines’ policy tells passengers if their flight is full and allows them to rebook.

The company announced on Friday it will book flights to capacity, effective July 1, following a similar United Airlines policy.

"We are unwavering in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers and team members," an American Airlines spokesperson told The Hill in a statement on Tuesday. "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."

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American Airlines had previously blocked off 50 percent of the main cabin middle seats and has been notifying customers if their flight is crowded when they check in. Other airlines have been blocking all middle seats, including Delta, JetBlue and Southwest. 

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator David Pekoske said on the press call that the agency has implemented social distancing during check points in airports and opened more security lanes to maintain it.

Pekoske also defended the federal government’s decision not to take passengers’ temperatures at check points, which A4A has requested, and not to require masks in airports, which the Airports Council International-North America has requested. 

“Temperature checks are not a guarantee that passengers that don’t have an elevated temperature don’t have COVID-19,” Pekoske said.

He added that no decision has been made on whether the government will conduct temperature checks, echoing previous statements from the agency. 

Major U.S. airlines announced earlier this month that masks are required on flights, and customers who refuse to wear the protective gear could be placed on a do not fly list. Masks are required inside 20 of the 30 large hub airports in the U.S., according to the American Association of Airport Executives. 

TSA has relied on airports to make those policies. 

“We encourage passengers to follow the CDC guidance, which recommends masks in public spaces,” Pekoske said.