Several Airlines Booking to Full Capacity Prompt Concerns Over COVID-19

American Airlines is re-joining several major U.S. air carriers in booking all flights to full capacity beginning July 1, ceasing the coronavirus pandemic precautionary measure of leaving at least one seat open between passengers.

Forth Worth, Texas-based American Airlines announced Friday it will soon match the full-capacity policy of rival United Airlines, despite both airlines having previously enabled social distancing on airplanes by leaving middle seats open. AA's move, which was criticized by the Allied Pilots Association union, comes as COVID-19 case numbers vaulted up in several parts of the United States, particularly Texas, Florida and Arizona. Several airlines including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are continuing to book flights at reduced capacity.

All major U.S. airlines require passengers to wear face coverings throughout the duration of flights and have eliminated most in-flight food and beverage offerings to requests only. Airline CEOs this week urged President Donald Trump to require temperature checks in order for passengers to board flights.

"As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1,'' American Airlines said in a statement. "American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost" through September 30. AA had previously limited bookings to about 85 percent of plane capacity, but will begin selling every seat starting next Wednesday.

United Airlines and Spirit Airlines already book flights to full capacity, with both companies issuing statements to Newsweek Saturday explaining the move is in response to a large increase in recent flight reservations.

A representative with Chicago-based United Airlines confirmed: "We do not block middle and/or adjacent seats. We do not have a cap on capacity. If we expect a flight to be more full we reach out to our customers in advance to let them know and provide rebooking options. So far, very few customers have rebooked."

Six aviation unions on Thursday sent a letter to Washington lawmakers asking for a second $32 billion bailout in order to keep hundreds of thousands of workers employed beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Under the CARES Act passed in late March, Congress gave U.S. airline companies $32 billion to cover six months of payroll through the end of September as they deal with dramatically reduced flight bookings.

Health experts particularly in states like Texas that have been hit hard this week with skyrocketing new coronavirus cases, say now is not the time for airlines to be pulling back on pandemic precautionary measures.

"The odds once you start increasing the number of bodies on a plane, at any rate, you are going to increase the odds that somebody on that plane is infectious," Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association's COVID-19 Task Force told NBC Dallas Fort-Worth Friday. "So, it's not about the middle seats to me. It's about the number of people on that plane in that confined setting."

"If everybody wears a mask on a plane that's the optimal solution," Carlo continued. "You know because we don't know who's infected at any one time. There's asymptomatic infection. So, the biggest thing we can do is for everybody to do their part and wear a mask in that environment."

A move to full capacity has also prompted concern from the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines, whose spokesperson said: "We were shocked. I can't imagine a worse time to tell passengers that the airplanes they may be on will be completely full."

Delta Airlines is continuing to cap seating at about 60 percent, and Southwest Airlines is proceeding with its two-thirds capacity cap through September 30. JetBlue said it will be leaving middle seats open through July 31, unless passengers booking flights together request to sit next to each other.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines on June 1 instituted temperature screenings for all passengers and crew prior to boarding flights. Any traveler with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher is not permitted to travel.

A Frontier representative told Newsweek via email Saturday: "We are blocking 20 seats per flight, which creates a total of 40 seats positioned next to a blocked middle seat. It is easy to see on our seating charts where the blocked seats are so those who book early can have a guaranteed empty seat next to them. As far as flight changes, for a period of time we did provide people the option of canceling their flight and receiving a credit for future use. Of course, if we cancel a flight those who are booked on that flight are entitled to a refund. Our standard change policy allows for changes free of charge outside of 60 days prior to the date of travel."

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American Airlines is re-joining several major U.S. air carriers in booking all flights to full capacity beginning July 1, ceasing the coronavirus pandemic precautionary measure of leaving at least one seat open between passengers. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / Contributor/Getty Images