The US carrier has come under fire in a Senate hearing on Tuesday, following its announcement to begin booking flights at full passenger capacity from Wednesday.
During the Senate hearing in front of the Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee, the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Robert Redfield, labelled the airline’s decision to reopen middle seats for sale onboard all flights as a “substantial disappointment”.
Dr Redfield made the comment in response to a question from Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who questioned why the government and its agencies has not done more to enforce social distancing measures on aeroplanes, as COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in states through the US.
Dr Redfield stated that the CDC was reviewing the changes to American Airlines’ policy, and added: “We don’t think it’s the right message.
“It’s really important that individuals that are in, whether it’s a bus or a train or a plane, are social distancing to the degree that’s feasible.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, told the Senate that the lack of social distancing on planes is “problematic”, particularly as the spread of the virus becomes less controlled.
“Obviously that is something that is of concern,” Dr Fauci said. “I would hope that there would be something to mitigate against that.”
American Airlines did not respond to health officials’ concerns over its change of policy, however issued a statement instead reiterating the airline’s position that other health and safety protocols already in place protect passengers.
“We are unwavering in our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our customers and team members,” the statement said.
“We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including [requiring] 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.”
American is not the only airline to publicly defend its position to sell out every seat on its domestic flights, with United having never implemented a policy to limit passenger capacity on its flights.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby defended this decision by stating that appropriate social distancing of six feet between passengers was “not possible” on planes.
“You can’t employ (social) distancing on an airline like you can in a grocery store,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, said on a press call ahead of the July 4th weekend.
Despite this, many airlines within the US, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue will all continue to uphold their policies to at least keep middle seats free on their flights, allowing for some space between passengers.
JetBlue has committed to its policy until at least the end of July, and both Southwest and Delta have stated they will uphold their policies until 30 September.