American Airlines pilots union wants the government to buy middle seats

Jun 24, 2020

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The union representing pilots at American Airlines wants the federal government to buy seats on flights in order to promote social distancing onboard and allow the carrier to continue flying.

On Wednesday, the Allied Pilots Association (APA) proposed what it calls the Safe Essential Air Transportation Seating, or SEATS, program as a second round of coronavirus stimulus for the U.S. airline industry. Under the proposal, the government would buy a minimum number of seats at average 2019 fares to ensure that no passenger has to “sit next to a stranger.”

The concept aims to kill two birds with one stone. It would give flyers the appearance of social distance onboard a plane — something airline executives have said is physically impossible — while also allowing the industry to continue with business as usual. Business as usual would mean no furloughs or layoffs once the protections under the government’s first aid package, the CARES Act, expire on Sept. 30.

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“The return of air travel is a major catalyst for economic recovery,” said APA president Capt. Eric Ferguson in a statement. “But in order for air travel to return, passengers must feel comfortable that it is safe. They must gain confidence that their government is acting to ensure that all safety standards and protocols are being upheld and enforced.”

The APA is not the only one to raise the idea of the government buying plane tickets. President Trump suggested the idea of buying tickets in bulk at a discount for a set period that the government could then use for its own travel in the future.

However, the proposal brought up memories of the “Karabu ticket agreement” that financier Carl Icahn saddled former Trans World Airlines (TWA) with in the 1990s. In exchange for settling a debt, the airline agreed to let Icahn buy certain tickets at a steep discount and resell them on his own website, effectively competing with TWA itself. The deal is widely viewed as hastening the demise of TWA, which merged with American in 2001.

Related: Why buying years of plane tickets to buoy airlines probably wouldn’t work

Inflight safety is paramount across the industry but how each airline is tackling the question varies. Some are blocking middle seats or capping bookings to give the appearance of distancing; this includes Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines. Others are emphasizing their cleaning procedures, like Delta, and mandatory mask requirements, for example American and United Airlines, in keeping travelers and crew members safe.

But it remains unclear what actually works. Preliminary findings by a team of researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona State University, Florida State University and University of West Florida found that boarding flights from back to front may not protect travelers as much as blocking middle seats.

The one thing that nearly everyone agrees protects flyers are masks. American, Delta, JetBlue Airways and United have all said they will ban travelers who disregard this rule with Delta CEO Ed Bastian saying that wearing a mask is a matter of “respect.” However, there are multiple reports of varying levels of enforcement.

Related: Frontier bucks pandemic trend with growth, but says masks are a must

“We’ve made it very clear that we require it,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle told TPG in an exclusive interview this week. “We’re not an airline that’s friendly to come onboard and [then] we’ll just pretend you wore a mask.”

In addition, airline management teams have made it clear that their airlines will not return to so-called business as usual anytime soon. This includes the leadership of American where they have used the crisis to accelerate planned aircraft retirements and move forward with a program adding seats to the cabins of its Airbus A321 and Boeing 737-800 jets. Both moves, according to executives, will make the airline more efficient and nimble in the future.

The APA, for now, appears alone in calling on the federal government to buy seats. Air Line Pilots Association spokesperson Corey Kuhn told TPG that the union is focused on extending CARES Act employee protections beyond September as well as a number of other initiatives, including hazard pay for essential workers. She declined to comment on the SEATS proposal.

ALPA represents pilots at Alaska Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue and United among others.

Related: Middle seats are blocked now, but don’t expect that to last long

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) spokesperson Taylor Garland told TPG that the union is also pushing for an extension of the CARES Act employment protections. The union represents cabin crews at Alaska, Spirit Airlines, United and other airlines.

“We need a fulsome federal plan to address COVID-19 safety onboard,” said Garland. “Middle seats alone will not keep passengers safe, and almost half the planes that take off every day do not even have a middle seat.”

To date in the crisis, multiple organizations have come out against airlines blocking middle seats. One, the International Air Transport Association, has opposed mandating open middle seats arguing that it does not guarantee safety and would force airlines to raise fares.

Trade group Airlines for America (A4A), which is widely credited for securing the more than $50 billion in aid airlines received in the CARES Act, was not immediately available to comment on the APA’s proposal.

Related: Airlines may face a tough fall after that summer uptick

Featured image by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images.

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