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United Airlines Say Social Distancing On a Plane is Just a “PR Strategy” Not a Safety Strategy

United Airlines Say Social Distancing On a Plane is Just a “PR Strategy” Not a Safety Strategy

A day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) slammed American Airlines for its decision to start selling flights to maximum capacity, United’s chief communications officer told journalists that blocking the middle seat on a plane for social distancing purposes was a “PR strategy” but not a safety strategy.

United has never had a policy of blocking the middle seat but was limiting capacity to around 70 per cent on most flights. The airline has since lifted its capacity cap but still warns passengers if they are booked on a busy flight and gives them the option to swap onto an alternative flight without incurring a fee.

“When it comes to blocking middle seats, that’s a PR strategy, that’s not a safety strategy,” Josh Earnest said during a teleconference on Wednesday. “When you’re on board the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within six feet from you, the person at the window is within six feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within six feet of you, the person in the row behind you are within six feet of you.”

United, however, says it is “committed to putting health and safety at the forefront of every customer’s journey” with a slew of other measures including a mandatory face mask rule, electrostatic disinfectant spraying, enhanced cabin cleaning and a touchless check-in and baggage drop experience.

The airline has partnered with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to develop its Coronavirus policies and cleaning protocols.

In contrast to American and United, the likes of Delta, Southwest and jetBlue have committed to blocking middle seats and limiting capacity for the rest of the summer season.

CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield told a Senate committee yesterday that there was “substantial disappointment” with American Airlines for its decision to start selling flights to capacity. “We don’t think it’s the right message,” Redfield told the committee.

The country’s top virologist Dr Anthony Fauci, meanwhile, also expressed frustration with American’s decision. “Obviously that is something that is of concern. I would hope that there would be something to mitigate against that.”

Fauci told the committee the potential for COVID-19 to spread on a packed plane “becomes even more problematic.”

Federal officials have consistently refused to issue specific COVID-19 mitigating rules for airlines and passengers. All major U.S. airlines now mandate the wearing of face masks but enforcement remains problematic because the FAA has declined to issue a temporary rule, while pleas to introduce temperature checks at airports has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Responding to criticism from the CDC and Dr Fauci, a spokesperson for American said the airline was “unwavering in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers and team members.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has issued biosecurity guidance which dismisses the idea of social distancing by blocking the middle seat. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization only suggests blocking the middle seat for social distancing purposes when flight loads are light but the influential body does not recommend limiting capacity.

Most European airlines no longer block middle seats because they believe mandatory face mask rules and other protection measures are an adequate replacement for social distancing.

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