The United States has just experienced the highest one-day totals of new cases of Covid-19 coronavirus reported since April. What will United Airlines and American Airlines do then in July? How about completely re-booking your flights and, in turn, squeezing people closer?
Yes, apparently that is what both airlines have chosen to do. Just take a look at this tweet:
Not 80%. Not 90%, but 100%. If you can’t read the section of the American Airlines statement from June 26 that accompanies the previous tweet without a magnifying glass, here are the first few sentences: “As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are reserved for from capacity July 1. American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when they become available, all without incurring any costs. “
Uh, “booking capacity” on a plane is not exactly social distancing. In fact, it could be just the opposite, more like a social approach or social grip or “social-your-elbow is on my elbow”.
When it comes to the Covid-19 coronavirus, proper social distancing means keeping at least one Ryan Gosling (who is six feet tall) away from everyone else. Note that this would be a lying Gosling, that is, a Gosling lying on the floor instead of standing or sitting. Unless United Airlines and American Airlines have drastically changed the design of their planes, you cannot place a Gosling between each of the seats. Heck, you might not even be able to put regular gosling (the feathered type) in those spaces.
What happened to maintaining social distancing on flights? After all, in May, in May, (about a cut and a half ago haircuts were missing) I wrote for Forbes on how United Airlines was criticized for failing to deliver on its own promises of social alienation. United Airlines had stated in an email to customers that they were “intermediate seats automatically to give you enough room on board.” When a doctor aboard a United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco tweeted a photo of the cabin, it appeared that the airline had blocked those intermediate seats with, please, other passengers. As a reminder, here is that tweet:
It didn’t seem like you could get too many Goslings between people on that flight. Seeing this on social media, many people wondered if they should even trust the airline’s future assurances that the intermediate seats would remain empty. Well, apparently starting next week there will be no need to wonder anymore. Expect those intermediate seats to fill if the airline can fill them.
Would it be really good to do this now? Several states are experiencing sudden increases in Covid-19 coronavirus cases, including large states that may have quite a few air travelers like Texas, California, and Florida. Will this policy change be risky “flat”? After all, isn’t there a decent chance that some contagious people will get on the planes of United and American Airlines?
Well, the American Airlines announcement seemed to minimize the change in booking policy and instead emphasized other Covid-19 coronavirus prevention measures that would be in effect. In fact, look at where the booking policy change was located in the ad. Not at the beginning Not in the second of the seven sections of the ad. But in the fifth section. That doesn’t exactly scream, “Look at me!”
The first sections of the announcement covered other things, such as the cleaning and disinfection procedures to be employed and the use of HEPA filtration systems on aircraft. They also stated that passengers will be offered disinfectant wipes or gel and that the delivery of food and beverages will be limited, which could save costs for airlines.
In addition, according to the announcement, the airline “will limit flight privileges for customers who refuse to cover their faces without a medical reason.” It is not entirely clear what “limiting flight privileges” will mean. This could offer a fair amount of leeway, just like “limiting bathroom privileges” generally doesn’t mean you can’t go to the bathroom at all. In any case, the ad stated that “wearing a face mask remains one of the most important ways that travelers can protect themselves and others while they fly.” This sounds reasonable, except that wearing a face covering is more to protect others from you than you protect yourself from others.
These are all good infection prevention measures to have in place. It is certainly better to hear that planes will be cleaned more thoroughly than a bachelor pad. But will all of these measures really be enough to protect you from the Covid-19 coronavirus? Getting dressed doesn’t just mean wearing a scarf, beret, and boots. That could leave you pretty exposed. Similarly, protecting you from the Covid-19 coronavirus doesn’t mean employing a ton of infection control measures without doing the most important thing of all: social estrangement. Even with all those other measures in place, what happens if you end up sitting very close to one or two people who are contagious for one, two, three, or more hours in a crowded indoor environment?
Let’s say they had to wear facial covers very diligently. That could help for short periods of time. But the longer you stay in closer contact, the greater the chance that something will end up dripping through your face covers. Also, it can be challenging to wear a face cover for such a long period of time without adjusting occasionally and perhaps even removing the cover. Heck, there are people who complain about wearing a face mask for even 10 minutes during a visit to a coffee shop.
The American Airlines announcement also mentioned another new policy. Beginning June 30, passengers will be required to certify during the registration process that “they have had no symptoms of COVID-19 for the past 14 days.” But how many people will this process really catch? How many people will be at the check-in stage and say, “oh, thanks for the reminder. That’s right, I have Covid-19 symptoms. What was I thinking? Better not fly right now. Also, a sizable proportion (between 30% and 60%) of contagious people do not even have symptoms, they may never have symptoms or are on the way to developing symptoms.
All of these other measures will not fully compensate for what you should not be doing these days, staying very close to others for an extended period indoors. In fact, many of these other measures would work much better if combined with social distancing.
Public health experts are unlikely to go to the airlines and say, “hey, people aren’t that close together on planes.” Do you know what would be great? Start packing your planes at full capacity. “Instead, financial considerations are likely to drive these changes in booking policy. After all, more people, more money. As shown in the following tweet, as long as the Government agencies like the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) do not guide or even regulate reservation policies, each airline can make decisions based largely on the business interests of the administration and the shareholders:
Yes, packing planes does not seem to be passed on as a precaution. We have already seen how the hasty reopening of businesses may have caused a sudden increase in Covid-19 coronavirus cases in several states. As a result, many companies have had to close again. Could something similar happen with the hasty reopening of airplane seats?
With the first wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic still continuing in the U.S., try to avoid air travel if you can. If you must travel by plane, try to take a flight that allows you to stay at least one Gosling away from everyone else for at least most of the flight. Just because you’re in the air doesn’t mean your chances of maintaining proper social distancing are, too.