Skip to content

United Airlines CEO says flying is safe, even without social distancing onboard

May 29, 2020
6 min read
United Airlines CEO says flying is safe, even without social distancing onboard
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is standing by the carrier's decision not to block middle seats on its flights, arguing that safety from the coronavirus comes from other measures but not physical distance onboard.

Kirby, who stepped into the top job at the Chicago-based carrier a little over a week ago, insisted at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference on May 28 that it is safe to fly on United's aircraft even as concerns of COVID-19 remain. The airline's cleaning regime, requirement that all passengers and crews wear masks, and air circulation through high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters keep travelers safe.

“Airplanes don’t have social distancing -- we’re not going to be six feet apart," he said. "But an airplane environment is incredibly safe."

Get Coronavirus travel updates. Stay on top of industry impacts, flight cancellations, and more.

More and more travelers are noticing fuller planes as people gradually return to the skies in the United States. On average, domestic flights had 46 passengers onboard during the week ending May 26, according to trade group Airlines for America (A4A). That's up dramatically from fewer than 10 people onboard at the end of March.

But while the improvement shows more people are flying on the few flights still operating, it has also created some uncomfortable situations for passengers unsure about safety onboard. People have tweeted images of full cabins with questions about airlines' social distancing policies.

Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways are blocking most middle seats and Southwest has capped sales below capacity. Other carriers are blocking them from sale or selection at booking, but the seats can still be assigned at check in or by a gate agent. And all of the policies sunset by the end of June.

Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats, requiring masks?

Kirby is correct that it's difficult to social distance from others onboard an aircraft. The typical economy seat is just 17 inches wide, or less than a quarter of the 6 feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the distance from a seat back to the front of the next seat -- or "pitch" -- is only around 30 inches in economy on non-low cost carriers.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

"You can’t be six feet apart on an airplane, middle seat or not," said Kirby.

United will allow travelers who are uncomfortable sitting next to someone else to move to another flight.

Related: A complete list of major carriers' coronavirus change and cancellation policies

Bankruptcy was another question that Kirby laid to rest at the Bernstein conference. While few have suggested that United could file for Chapter 11, he put the kibosh on any thought of the idea.

“To me it’s like the dumbest question possible -- we are not going to like file for bankruptcy," said Kirby. "It would be the absolute last thing we’d do… That is not even remotely in the plans for United Airlines.”

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker has made similar comments, arguing that he views bankruptcy as failure and not a financial tool.

“I think we’re all going to be fine,” said Parker at the Bernstein conference on May 27. “I don’t think you’re going to see any airlines go by the wayside.”

Related: United Airlines may change route map post-coronavirus, says no hub is ‘sacred’

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Avianca and it’s partner United at Washington Dulles. Avianca filed for bankruptcy for the second time on Sunday.

A post shared by Ned Russell (@airbus777) on

Cash is critical to airlines' surviving the coronavirus crisis. Those who have filed for bankruptcy or their local equivalent, including United partner Avianca as well as Virgin Australia, have cited the near disappearance of all revenues as people stopped traveling and country's restricted their borders for their restructurings.

Raymond James analysts estimated that the big three U.S. carriers -- American, Delta and United -- respectively have seven months, nearly 13 months and 10 months, of cash on hand in a May 25 report.

“We are going to survive the crisis, and emerge stronger on the other side," said Kirby.

Related: United considers retiring Boeing 757s and 767s, many of its 50-seat jets

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of United Airlines)

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023