May 14, 2020 / 11:06 PM / 23 days ago

House Democrat wants U.S. airlines to cap seating because of coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday urged U.S. airlines to maintain at least one seat between all passengers and cap seating at 67% of capacity on narrow-body airplanes to address the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to a group representing major airlines including Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), American Airlines (AAL.O), Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) and United Airlines (UAL.O), Representative Peter DeFazio said airlines should “leave at least one seat-width of spacing between passengers and to dynamically adjust fares as needed to account for the effect on load factors.”

U.S. travel demand has fallen by more than 94%, which has made it easy - on most flights - for airlines to space out passengers. But a photo from a recent full transcontinental United flight has drawn concerns from lawmakers and others.

Of the top four U.S. airlines, Delta and Southwest have been limiting the sale of seats on flights to enable some social distancing onboard, while American Airlines and United Airlines Holdings (UAL.O) have been blocking middle seat selection, though middle seats may end up being assigned at the gate if a flight it fully booked.

After a social media backlash this week over a packed flight referenced by DeFazio, United said it would let passengers know ahead of time if their flights were going to be full and allow them to re-book on a different flight or receive a travel credit.

“Who among the CEOs of A4A carriers would want a member of their own family to be assigned to a middle seat between two potentially contagious passengers in the middle of a global pandemic?” DeFazio asked in his letter to trade group Airlines for America.

Southwest said Thursday it hopes its current one-third reduction in available seats “gives customers confidence in the ability to social distance while flying with us.” The airline does not block middle seats so families can sit together. Delta has halted sale of middle seats and capped seating at 60% in its main cabins.

U.S. airlines, which are collectively burning more than $10 billion monthly during the crisis, have mandated facial coverings and some are blocking some seats. But they note that in order to have 6 feet (2 meters) of social distancing on airplanes in all directions, an airline could be forced to block off two-thirds or more of seats.

Frontier Airlines said last week it will require temperature checks of passengers starting June 1. Under pressure from lawmakers, it scrapped a plan to allow passengers to pay to sit next to an empty seat.

“The pandemic requires short-term adjustment on the part of every stakeholder, and the sooner we can defeat this insidious virus, the sooner the American public will feel confident about buying airline tickets and traveling again,” DeFazio said.

The trade group, United, Delta and American declined to comment on the letter. The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment.

U.S. airlines have parked more than 3,000 planes, or more than 50% of the fleet and canceled 80% or more of flights in May and June.

Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Chris Reese, Dan Grebler and Diane Craft

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