Redfield, Fauci Criticize American Airlines for Ending Middle-Seat Blocking

Redfield, Fauci Criticize American Airlines for Ending Middle-Seat Blocking
Travelers wear masks as they wait at the American Airlines ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill., on June 16, 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)
Venus Upadhayaya

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Dr. Anthony Fauci, member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, criticized American Airlines' decision to end their policy of blocking middle seats on flights.

"I can tell you that when they announced that the other day, obviously there was a substantial disappointment with American Airlines," Redfield said during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Tuesday.

The CDC director said many airlines have kept the middle-seat blocking and that American Airlines' decision is currently under "critical review" at the CDC.

"We don’t think it’s the right message, as you pointed out," Redfield said in response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Again, we think it’s really important in individuals that are in whether it’s a bus or a train or a plane or social distancing to the degree that’s feasible and at least have a reliable face covering," he said.

In April, American Airlines capped the number of customers on each flight to 85 percent, meaning that all middle seats were empty to allow for social distancing, a spokesperson for the airline told The Epoch Times in an email.

"As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1," said the spokesperson.

 Rows of empty seats of an American Airlines flight in Washington on March 18, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Rows of empty seats of an American Airlines flight in Washington on March 18, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Fauci said he doesn't know what was behind American Airlines' decision, but that it's a matter of concern.

"I would hope there would be something to mitigate against that because I know as we’ve said and I continue to repeat it, that avoiding crowds, staying the distance, and when in a situation like that, wear a mask. I think in the confines of an airplane that becomes even more problematic," Fauci told Sanders.

The spokesperson, however, said the airline is committed to the safety and well-being of all 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," said the spokesperson.

Josh Earnest, United Airlines chief communications officer, told reporters that the middle-seat blocking is a PR strategy and that practicing social-distancing is not possible inside an aircraft.

“When it comes to blocking middle seats, that’s a PR strategy, that’s not a safety strategy,” said Earnest, who also served as White House press secretary under then-President Barack Obama.

“When you’re onboard the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within 6 feet from you, the person at the window is within 6 feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within 6 feet of you, the people in the row behind you are within 6 feet of you,” said Earnest, reported CNBC.

Other airlines will continue to block middle-seats and cap seating in every cabin as a safety precaution. The airlines—which include Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest—announced that the policy will remain through Sept. 30.

“Reducing the overall number of customers on every aircraft across the fleet is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure a safe experience for our customers and people,” said Bill Lentsch, Delta's chief customer experience officer, in a statement on June 26.
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.