Airlines CEO Defends Full Flights, Arguing ‘You Can’t Socially Distance’ On Planes

The CEO of an industry group representing major U.S. airlines reportedly balked at federal health officials’ complaints that flying passenger planes at full capacity during the coronavirus pandemic is dangerous, and argued Tuesday that social distancing on planes is impossible.

“You can’t social distance on an airplane,” Nicholas E. Calio, the CEO of Airlines for America (A4A), said in a call with reporters, according to The Hill. “We believe there are safety measures in place on a multilevel basis that makes flying safe, in fact, safer than many other activities.”

He cited grocery shopping as one of the activities that’s less safe than flying on a full plane. 

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has expressed “substantial disappointment” with American Airlines’ decision to fill planes to capacity starting Wednesday.

“When they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Redfield said Tuesday during a Senate committee hearing.

Redfield’s comment came in response to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asking why there are no federal guidelines for social distancing on public transportation. Redfield said American Airlines’ decision to pack planes is under “critical review” from the CDC and that “we don’t think it’s the right message.”

American Airlines is part of the A4A, as are Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.

American Airlines has announced that it will resume flying its planes at full capacity beginning Wednesday. The CDC's di

American Airlines has announced that it will resume flying its planes at full capacity beginning Wednesday. The CDC’s director called this decision a “substantial disappointment.”

All of the planes among A4A’s airliners are said to be equipped with HEPA air filters, which are capable of removing 99.9% of airborne particles. Still, a full flight would put passengers within inches of each another for an extended amount of time. As Sanders pointed out, the CDC recommends people keep 6 feet between them whenever possible.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged this issue at the Senate hearing and called American’s decision “something that is of concern.”

“I would hope that there would be something to mitigate against that because … I think in the confines in an airplane [the virus] becomes even more problematic,” he said.

In a statement to HuffPost, an American Airlines spokesperson did not address Redfield’s and Fauci’s disapproval but instead reiterated the airliner’s current safety measures.

“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,” they said. 

A4A announced Monday that all of its member carriers will require passengers to wear a mask and complete a health survey prior to checking in. Passengers are supposed to be asked if they have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus in the last 14 days or with someone who has had symptoms.

Passengers who do not complete the health survey “may be deemed unfit to travel and each carrier will resolve the matter in accordance with its own policies,” A4A’s website states.

It’s not clear what accommodations will be provided to ticket holders who say they’ve had recent contact with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patient. A4A said last week that its member carriers will voluntarily refund tickets for passengers that have an elevated temperature during a health screening prior to travel.

An A4A spokesperson did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for an elaboration on the policy.

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