House Transportation Committee Chairman Urges All U.S. Airlines to Leave Middle Seats Open on Flights

The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation implored U.S. airlines to practice better social distancing on all flights by not booking middle seats.

Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio sent a May 14 letter to the largest U.S. airline trade associations acknowledging the industry's financial struggles but reminding them that passenger health and safety must take priority during coronavirus pandemic. He said not booking middle seats on all flights would increase social distancing between mask- and glove-wearing patients.

On narrow-body aircraft, the additional seat-width of space between passengers would reduce the maximum load factor to around 67 percent, DeFazio noted in his letter. The congressman said his request was prompted after he saw a photo on Twitter of "scared" and "shocked" passengers aboard a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco earlier this month. The photo, which was taken by a physician and widely shared on social media, showed passengers in almost every seat on the plane.

Reacting to the photograph, DeFazio wrote to Airlines for America and the National Air Carrier Association, pleading with them to leave at least one seat between passengers on all domestic flights.

"Despite Centers for Disease Control recommendations regarding social distancing, the picture shows nearly every seat is filled," DeFazio wrote. "And although many passengers are wearing masks or other protective face coverings, they look worried. In fact, a physician on the flight tweeted that passengers were 'scared' and 'shocked' by the absence of social distancing on board."

His letter continued: "I would be, too, if I were about to spend the next five hours sealed in a tube with up to 184 passengers, all seated inches from one another, and any number of whom could be a carrier of COVID-19. Who among the CEOs of A4A carriers would want a member of their own family to be assigned to a middle seat between two potentially contagious passengers in the middle of a global pandemic?"

Newsweek reached out to DeFazio's Oregon and Washington offices for comment Monday afternoon but did not hear back before publication.

Several airlines, such as Delta, Spirit and Alaska, have voluntarily stopped booking middle seats on flights temporarily in response to the pandemic. JetBlue has taken a different approach, saying it simply doesn't assign about one-third of its seats to any passengers.

But with countless flights canceled, many planes are taking off at full capacity despite social distancing protocols. During a Boeing virtual meeting with shareholders last month, CEO Dave Calhoun said about 64 percent of the world's planes are grounded in hangars and on tarmacs because of the pandemic. He added that he does not expect to return to 2019 levels of air travel for at least two to three years.

Other airlines, including American, have blocked off 50 percent of their middle seats. "Our team also monitors flights closely to maintain social distancing," a spokesman told USA Today Monday.

The airline industry groups have not yet responded to DeFazio's request to make the removal of the middle seat a uniform policy across all airlines. "I would respectfully urge A4A members to ensure that their reservation systems leave at least one seat-width of spacing between passengers and to dynamically adjust fares as needed to account for the effect on load factors," his letter said.

airlines middle seat booking space
A passenger looks at his phone while waiting for takeoff on a United Airlines plane in Houston on May 11. Some airlines have temporarily stopped booking middle seats on flights in response to the coronavirus outbreak. JUSTIN SULLIVAN / Staff/Getty Images