Should the government buy airplane seats so passengers can social distance? American Airlines pilots think so
American Airlines Group Inc.’s pilots called on the U.S. government to pay for enough jetliner seats to enable social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, saying the move would help support carriers through the worst collapse in industry history.
The estimated cost of the proposal would be about $1.9 billion a month for the 10 largest U.S. carriers as they operate an average 40% of their normal flying capacity, the Allied Pilots Association said in a statement Wednesday. That would rise to $3.8 billion when the airlines reach 80% of normal schedules and decline as immunity to the virus rises, the union said, adding that actual costs of the program are likely to be lower.
The plan furthers calls to expand federal aid for devastated U.S. airlines, which already have received $25 billion for payroll costs and can borrow another $25 billion from the Treasury Department. As the pandemic gutted demand, carriers slashed flying, shrank fleets and encouraged workers to take leave or early retirement. Yet the risk of mass job losses looms when restrictions tied to the federal support expire after September.
“We’re still in an absolutely critical zone when traffic is just over 20% of what it was in 2019,” union President Eric Ferguson said in an interview. “It’s still quite dire.”
The largest U.S. airlines have limited the number of tickets they sell on each flight to allow middle seats to remain open, although some only do so when demand allows. The limits are designed to help prevent spread of the virus. But carriers have said that forgoing the sale of as much as 40% of seats per plane isn’t sustainable.
Under the APA proposal, “the government would purchase enough seats on each flight to eliminate the need for any passenger to sit next to a stranger,” Ferguson said in the statement. “Passengers would be encouraged to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure the preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and associated jobs.”
Payments would be based on the previous year’s cost to fly each seat a mile to ensure “a level playing field,” the APA said. The union said it has begun discussing the proposal with lawmakers.
“We can appreciate the APA’s resourcefulness in devising an idea designed to support the recovery of air travel,” said Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, though the carrier doesn’t plan to lobby for additional support. The Treasury and Transportation departments didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The proposal follows a call Tuesday by the National Air Carrier Association for an extension of existing federal payroll support as airlines wait for more passengers to resume flying. The group represents discounters such as Spirit Airlines Inc. and Allegiant Travel Co., as well as smaller air cargo carriers and charter operators. Larger airlines haven’t sought additional federal assistance, according to their trade group, Airlines for America.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest labor group representing aviators, didn’t comment directly on the APA proposal. Such a plan isn’t among its current lobbying efforts, which include an extension of the federal payroll support program or similar efforts “to ensure the stability of the airline industry and a robust rebound,” ALPA said by email.
While domestic leisure travel has risen slightly, in some cases producing crowding on the smaller number of flights available, airlines have said that a full recovery could take as long as three years.