Hypocrisy: As American Airlines Fills All Their Middle Seats, Rows Are Still Blocked For Flight Attendants

Either blocking seats on planes for social distancing is important, or it isn’t. American Airlines will no longer block seats for passengers (claiming it isn’t necessary) but will continue to block seats for flight attendants (for their protection).

American Airlines Will Start Filling All Their Middle Seats This Week

Starting Wednesday American Airlines says they will no longer limit the number of seats they sell on each flight. They had been capping flights at 85% capacity, which blocks some middle seats so that customers would feel more comfortable flying in the current environment. (Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue continue to limit sales so that middle seats do not have to be occupied.)

The airline takes the position – correctly – that flights aren’t a significant transmission vector for SARS-CoV-2. And that there’s no true social distancing on planes anyway, a blocked middle seat means 18 inches of space between passengers to the side, it doesn’t mean ‘six feet’.

Seat Blocking Continues To Allow Flight Attendants To Social Distance

American Airlines does actually continue to limit sales a little bit on many aircraft, not so passengers get empty seats next to them, but to provide social distancing for flight attendants. I shared new capacity limits for each aircraft in American’s fleet, effective July 1.

American still limits seating by flight attendant jump seats where there aren’t solo jump seats and flight attendants would otherwise have to sit beside each other.

Normally 14 CFR 121.391(d) requires flight attendants to be located as close as possible to floor level exits, and that they must be at these duty stations during taxi. However the FAA temporarily offered an exemption to allow greater flight attendant distancing on board.

Is Distancing Important, Or Isn’t It?

Proactive steps have been taken to allow flight attendants to be a few inches farther away from each other, but not so much for passengers.

They also continue to limit onboard alcohol, ostensibly so that flight attendants have less contact with passengers and don’t have to sell drinks. Of course drinks used to be free in American’s Main Cabin Extra, and those are gone too. And on many flights you have to ask for free drinks now even in first class. Here’s how American decided to stop serving inflight meals in first class on most domestic flightsUpdate: American Airlines offers this by way of explanation,

American is blocking a small number of seats due to aft facing jump seats in the cabin that are in close proximity to the customer, who is forward facing.

This is specifically on the A321 fleet (four configurations) and the Embraer ERJ140/145.

On the CRJ700/900 regional fleet, one or two seats are blocked in the last row due to the folding jump seat that folds out for taxi, takeoff and landing.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    I am so disappointed with AA. But that is a recurring theme of late unfortunately. Could you do a post that talks about buying an empty seat next to you on a plane and the process to do this? I have heard that Jet Blue allows this during the booking process, but have not seem how it works. Thanks!

  2. Everyone wants to have a debate whether it’s ethical or moral to travel right now, but why would you WANT to travel right now? Flight attendants providing no service, passengers tense when they see someone isn’t wearing a mask, destinations pausing or reversing on reopening. Is it even worth it?

  3. It is not the airline’s responsibility to guarantee a free middle seat. We are in the middle of a pandemic, where and why are people flying? If you want to fly somewhere, then take into account that airplanes have middle seats and it is not the airlines’ responsibility to hold the middle seat free.
    End of the story.
    If you want to stay safe, how about staying home and wearing a mask when you venture out into public. If you want to fly, that’s your decision and responsibility as well. You want the middle seat free, purchase an extra seat.

  4. Well the flight from MIA to ORD was all full on Saturday so I guess they were starting that policy a few days early.

  5. Gary yesterday: “Flying Just Isn’t a Big Coronavirus Risk”

    Gary today: “AA is horrible. They are ignoring passenger safety from coronavirus.”

    Faux outrage. It’s what VFTW does best.

  6. Same, flew cross country and both ways the plane was completely full with every middle seat taken. Every other business has to maintain distance, but not AA.

  7. It is not a hypocrisy but an attempt to keep labor relations at piece. Look, today, whether you fly or not is your personal decision. There is no reasonably sized company that would REQUIRE you to travel unless you are a FA or a pilot (I wonder if air marshals are still flying). Yes, one could miss a funeral or a wedding but it is not your job requirement to be there.
    FAs are another story. It is their job to fly. Obviously, you do not want to have a full plane and a FA who would refuse to fly. So keeping just one seat next to FA is a small place to keep then happy. Besides, their risk is much higher than for leisure travelers because of much longer exposure.
    And if someone is afraid to board the full flight, there are always some great options of a) driving, b) flying private, c) flying another airline that would block the middle seat, d) staying in the basement for the time being.
    And by the way, according to AA “…in the last three weeks only had one incremental case [of COVID-19] among … flight attendants”.

  8. Gary’s really on both sides here, as Marc said upthread.

    As for AA and UA, they and other airlines have built their business plans with packing planes at the center of that strategy. They may get enough people to fill some planes that way, but they will not get the huge numbers they need to get anywhere near normal ops.

    People will, overall, travel again when they feel it is safe. As we can see from the cases now, many states vastly undershot estimating the safety point, and it sure seems AA and UA have too, regardless of what Dr. Leff would like to believe.

  9. I will be booking Delta and Southwest over American when I have the opportunity. I’m booked on an AA flight next Saturday and as far as I know Business class has been fully booked for a couple of months. My husband and i are not able to sit together.

  10. @Pete… There were three AA flights MIA-ORD pm Saturday; none of them exceeded the 85% cap, which allows 146 passengers in the 172 seat cabin. Including standby passengers, they went out with 146, 144, and 146.

  11. Alex has it right

    AA isn’t forcing passengers to fly

    It does force its flight attendants to fly
    Thus it has to create a safe working environment

    Which leads to the discrepancy

  12. Best solution is to not fly at all unless your firm forces you to because they don’t care about their employees. Effectively, I agree with Marc and Andre.

  13. Fake outrage. Flight attendants fly 1-4 flights a day, thereby increasing their expose. Passengers fly once or twice a YEAR. This is about protecting the passenger, too ya know.

  14. No – American isn’t capping load factors to promote social distancing on its longest flights, which entail passengers on board longer than the average flight attendant in the system / flight attendants working the narrowbodies listed above…

  15. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the rows that are blocked for flight attendants, which usually is just the last row, will be unblocked if need be for passengers. Those usually only remain blocked if the plane isn’t completely sold.

  16. oh please you know this was done because the unions demanded it. so you’re gonna fault AA for trying to protect their frontline workers. whatever bro. While you may be on a flight for 3 hours so ur risk of catching it from a guy next to you is minimal, Flight attendants are in the air all day long, so there is a higher risk. Just like there is a higher risk for healthcare workers to catch covid because they’re constantly exposed every waking minute. Get a grip.

    Like its been mentioned above, FAs are being forced into a precarious position. Nobody has to fly, so you fly at your own risk. the FAs dont have any protection to “not show up.” What a shameful way to try and take your frustration of AA management out when they’re clearly doing this for the well being of their staff.

  17. Anybody who thinks that keeping the middle seat empty will make any difference, Will never contract covid because their heads are somewhere that the sun doesn’t shine!!!

  18. First off, flight attendants DO NOT have to fly—they bid to fly and are perfectly capable of booking shorter/less traveled legs if they’re concerned.
    I just flew AA 2 weeks ago and they left the last SIX SEATS (the row behind me and across/behind) vacant, ostensibly for flight attendants, but none sat there during the short 3 hour flight as that would have put them CLOSER to us in the full rows ahead.
    They were MUCH “safer” in their jump seats beyond the bathrooms.

    There is no reasonable justification for leaving those seats unoccupied as they do not make FA’s safer, are not being used by them and would allow at least 4 more people some wiggle room.

    In addition, EVERY SEAT except (luckily) the one next to me and 2 closer to the front were booked long before this notice.
    I was the last one to board my flight flight 2 weeks ago and was able to document the limited (3) avail seats, even when they professed to only be booking at 85% capacity.
    Business class was completely full as well.

    It’s always been profit over safety for them-let’s not kid ourselves.

  19. Oh please, this is not a big deal. The flight crews are sitting next to how many different people a day, This protects them ( I applaud AA for this) and us since we don’t know who they were next to on the previous flight. Yes there have been people who flew sick, but little evidence of COVID-19 transmission on any plane (they aren’t like cruise ships or nursing homes.

    AA is making senses, DL is just trying to scare people into thinking they care (which BTW they don’t)and UA is just UA.

    Learn the facts: Mask ON, Hands WASHED, COVER your cough and DON’T travel if you worried or sick. Easy enough until treatments and vaccines are available. If we all do this, life will get back to a state of normalcy faster.

  20. Their is not an Aircraft in the System, that would allow 6 feet in between each passenger. Thus, in order to get you to where you want to go, not where A.A. wants you to travel to their will be fuller flights. They also need to do safety checks on all A.C. that have been parked. The markets that people will fly to will increase which will require more and more aircraft to be inspected. Right now its a position we have all been put in. If you choose to fly you cannot hold against one particular airline. Just imagine what it would be like if just one of these major airlines, had to shutdown due to bookings. You would be waiting hours if not days to get to where you want to fly.

  21. Flying is not a significant vector of transmission, but yet it made it all over the world within months, literally. Did it walk??

  22. @Jon Jacob – people with the disease traveled and brought it with them, but there’s little evidence of spreading happening *on planes*

  23. You forgot the E175s operated by Republic, Envoy, and I think Piedmont on the capacity table

  24. Thia is phony because I just flew American Father’s Day weekend and the flight was packed. No middle seat was empty. I made a complaint online to American and never heard ba k from them.

  25. There’s no social distancing on planes..shouldn’t be able to fly period..double standards..bars cant be open but you can be crammed in a plane

  26. AA is already filling their planes they’re not waiting until July 1st. They may require you to wear a mask to get on the plane but many people took their masks off and the flight attendants never ask them to put them back on kind of defeats the purpose of wearing one in the first place. Both flight I flew the person across the aisle took their mask off and I didn’t feel safe but I didn’t feel like I could say anything

  27. You call it hypocrisy, but is it common sense? I am tired of people saying cruise lines and airlines are “responsible”. By traveling now or anytime you accept a certain degree of risk. Flight attendants would have to be around everyone on the plane, not just the 5 others in a passenger’s proximity.

  28. I have been on several American flights where every seat – including middle seats – are booked, while the last two rows are blocked off for FA’s to sit comfortably and do crossword puzzles.

    I have also seen FA’s “disappearing” in-flight so as not to have to provide alcohol (and I was flying first).

    The latest I have seen on at least two flights is 1D (bulkhead, First) being “reserved” for an FA. When I inquired, I was told that it is an “FAA Requirement.” Really? The FAA is requiring American Airlines to block 1D for FA’s? I could find no information on that and AA didn’t respond to my inquiry.

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