Quit The Outrage Over Full Flights And Lack Of Social Distance On Planes

Stop blaming and shaming airlines on social media for full flights and passengers failing to wear masks.

Airlines are taking steps to encourage social distancing. For instance American and United have been blocking middle seats from assignment in advance. And Delta has stopped doing upgrades prior to day of departure at the airport. A lot more seating assignment work has to happen at the gate rather than just leaving things in the hands of passengers.

However with airlines cutting back on flights, some of those flights do wind up full, or at least nowhere close to empty. And that means passengers aren’t all that far apart from each other.

There’s a new cottage industry of outrage online over this. Here’s Sara Nelson the ‘most powerful flight attendant in America‘:

Is it cynical of me to wonder whether it’s an accident that she tweets out of a photo of an American Airlines flight? Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA which does not represent American Airlines flight attendants but would like to, and wants to undermine that Association of Professional Flight Attendants suggesting they aren’t protecting their members who fly for American.

However Ms. Nelson has (2) complaints:

  1. Masks should be worn

  2. Non-essential travel should be banned

There’s a third common complaint, that people shouldn’t be permitted to fly in middle seats to promote distancing.

Sara Nelson doesn’t know the reasons each of the people in this photo are traveling. Medical personnel aren’t the only ones who need to fly. Someone might be traveling to spend last moments with a dying loved one. They might be traveling to comply with a court order, bringing a child to stay with another parent.

Moreover there are parts of the country that are not under lockdown, where people are not subject to stay at home orders. There are counties without confirmed cases of coronavirus. That doesn’t mean there aren’t asymptomatic carriers. But while there are some ‘self-quarantine on arrival’ orders for passengers traveling out of the New York area to certain destinations, or to Hawaii, there are no broad bans on air travel. In fact the CARES Act required maintaining air service at levels far beyond what’s necessary to support current passenger demand.

And I guess I’m shocked that people are shocked there would be others sitting near them on a plane. Why would anyone think the airline was selling them a ticket but not selling tickets to other people?

  • if you want to guarantee an empty seat beside you, buy one.

  • if you are concerned about sitting near other people it may not be a good idea to fly right now.

  • if your problem is with other passengers not wearing masks, blame the passengers. Nelson wants the government to require it, American Airlines committed to provide masks to passengers, and JetBlue will require it without government getting involved – expect other airlines to follow.

Merely seeing other passengers beside each other isn’t a problem if you don’t know their story. There’s nothing wrong with members of the same household not social distancing from each other.

Empty middle seats aren’t a panacea in any case, if the person sitting behind you sneezed space to your side doesn’t protect you. And airlines aren’t doing anything wrong selling tickets for travel that people want to buy. Current federal policy is that airlines are supposed to sell tickets and take people where they’re trying to go.

Ultimately if you do not feel it is safe to fly, then do not fly. If you do fly, wear a mask (whether the government is requiring it or not). Bring hand sanitizer – the TSA has relaxed carry on liquid rules for this purpose. And wash your hands.

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. Thank you! So sick of these poor soul who care only about themselves just to get attention on Social Media (the whore of marketing, if fact it’s not even marketing, it just a why for whiny millennial to get noticed). I applaud how the airlines have jumped in. DL and AA have been true leaders and everyone is trying to figure out the best way to handle this. Yes, it scary, but the majority of people will be fine. If your at risk, then don’t fly right now and everyone else just follow the CDC guidelines (wash your hands/don’t touch your face/ wear a mask to stop you from spreading to someone else).

    Can we start to shame these self righteous do gooders who are just want the attention they don’t get now that their helicopter parents have retired to FL! Enough already. BTW that cell phone your holding to film all this outrage is the gremmest thing on the plane!

  2. I can’t disagree with you strongly enough. Nobody needs to die from a 4 hour flight. Medical studies over the last 30 years have shown that, even on airplanes, maintaining 6 feet of separation is effective in preventing the transmission of diseases like covid-19.

    If entire businesses on terra firma have to be completely shut down for public health, the absolute least airlines could do is keep people 6 feet apart on flights.

  3. Furthermore you are spreading misinformation (I don’t think maliciously, but ignorantly).

    1. Medical researchers have studied cases of SARS and Covid-19 transmission on airplanes and have concluded 6 feet of separation is effective. So downplaying it as some fairy tale is both ignorant and dangerous.

    2. Telling people to just wear masks is fact free. There is no evidence that anything less than an N97 respirator has any effectiveness on preventing catching the disease.

    So if you sit next to an infected person on a packed flight wearing a basic cloth mask you stand a very high chance of getting infected.

  4. “Outrage” should be reserved for complaints folks are willing to light themselves on fire over. If they aren’t, then it’s really just a varying degree of mild peeve.

  5. I agree. People should instead be thankful that the airports are even open! In other countries’ version of a lockdown, all airports are closed and no commercial flights are possible.

  6. So you find her to be attractive but prefer that she were batting for the side you are on when it comes to unions and would instead want her to join the Fox News brigade of Blondes for Trump?

    Packed planes like that are probably a recipe for increased viral load exposure and not a good thing for FAs and passengers on board the flights.

  7. Very well said, Gary.

    If people want to fly in solitary, please buy a NetJets ownership program, not a commercial air ticket.

  8. @A: While I agree with the 6 feet statement, the face mask goal for people in these situations is NOT to prevent catching the disease but to prevent people who have it from spreading it, which masks absolutely help do.

  9. Faux outrage has been all the rage for too long. Planes have never been a safe haven for your health given the spacing. There’s assumed risk every single time anyone gets on a plane.

  10. A wrote: “So if you sit next to an infected person on a packed flight wearing a basic cloth mask you stand a very high chance of getting infected.”

    We all know this by now. Gary’s not being “ignorant”, maliciously or otherwise. The reason for masks/face coverings is so we don’t SPREAD the virus if we’re asymptomatic. Your statement should continue… “if you sit next to an infected person on a packed flight while BOTH wearing a cloth mask, you stand almost no chance of getting infected.”

  11. Honestly I’m willing to bet that a vast number of people on those flights do not need to be traveling. Not at all. Very few courts would require children be flown during this medical crisis so that is another lame excuse.

    And if someone is actually in a county with no cases, then that itself is a prime reason not to travel since you could easily bring back the virus to your county and cause an outbreak.

    For a thought leader you don’t have many intelligent thoughts and it is more of a comedy of errors.

  12. I have to disagree. When the CDC, WHO and everybody else says that keeping at least 6 feet apart helps reduce the spread and that people shouldn’t travel from city to city except for emergencies or essential work travel, it’s irresponsible for airlines to sell $20 fares. I saw flights on a major carrier, LAX-MIA , for $20. These fares attract people who don’t care about spreading Covid 19, they just want a cheap family vacation. They could be spreading it everywhere they go and exposing everyone they are in contact with, including cabin crew and pilots, who have to go to work and up until recently have had no exposure mitigation help from their employers.

  13. I wonder if the trade organization, Airlines for America, is sponsoring some research on air travel and the virus. We know that commercial airlines have hospital-like air filters and circulation, which undoubtedly does reduce the risk of infection. For an enclosed space, an airplane is pretty darn safe. Of course, you are still sitting close together with strangers, so it would be valuable to study the actual science. Right now, we have a heck of a lot more fear than science.

  14. Gary, your post sets up Nelson as the villain, and by the end of your post you actually agree with her, the union president. Better watch out, that’s solidarity right there.

    Also, she doesn’t say that the government should ban non-essential travel, only that the govt should require masks.

  15. I couldn’t agree with A more.

    Packed flights in the middle of a pandemic, what could go wrong?

  16. i LOVE THIS .. Thank You. I think its even more hysterical, that upon boarding in normal fashion they are cramming up against each other on a jetbridge on plane aisle … right after they were chastising a gate agent about social distancing …. and same as when the plane lands, they are all crammed up against each other trying to get off, not observing their OWN social distancing … but they are happy to hypocritically scream at the airlines for something the general public isn’t doing. so, hum things haven’t changed much.

  17. @A (and Bill S) you are living in La La Land! There is no practical way to have 6 feet of separation on a commercial jet. 80% (or more) of the seats would be removed and prices would go up 8-10 fold. If you want that level of separation just fly private! Otherwise accept what you can’t change or avoid air travel completely!

    BTW, would you prefer the US follow the lead of Argentina and shut down ALL air travel (domestic and international) until Sept 1?

  18. What is the point of the outrage? We are adults….if you are worried, don’t fly. It’s as simple as that. The airlines have no duty to protect you….you look after you. Gary is right, buy the middle seat if you are worried. The only way for this to end is for virtually everyone to get the virus and recover…or die. If you are awaiting a vaccine…good luck with that. In the mean time, the rest of us will be traveling while the whiners are in their mom’s basement.

  19. At least there are some among us with voices of sanity.

    In normal times an airplane is a petri dish of germs. It’s already been scientifically proven that such respiratory illnesses and TB and SARS have a far greater infection/contagion rate on aircraft. So, why the fuss about asking people to wear a mask when trying to prevent exposure to a hotbed of germs during an outbreak when there is no cure or effective treatment? In Asia the people wear masks out of consideration to others when they know they can affect others–why not the same consideration during these stressful times?

    Really, I just don’t understand the me-me-me-ism in this country. It’s like these nutjob yahoos from the backwoods want to give the finger to our medical professionals who are putting their lives on the line for us.

    Whatever happened to respect, consideration, and the advancement of the greater good?

  20. For a country that’s very messed up politically and financially someone in Argentina has done the right thing. AirAsia and Jet Blue are now requiring everyone to wear a mask. I’m planning to start flying again if possible in Sept. and I will be wearing a mask.

  21. I’ve come to realize that this site is really about supporting airlines in all of their irresponsible money-making connivances.
    The more of this nonsense I read, the more clearly I see that we need a return to genuine passenger-centered supervision of airline conduct. Not shareholder uber alles.
    YOU can stuff yourself into a painfully small seat with too many others during a pandemic if you choose or pay 5X the price for a reduced-size first class seat. I can ONLY choose not flying (or some foreign carriers.)
    This kind of corporate conduct blasts loud and clear that no one is watching out for passengers’ best interests — even if the FAs are there (only) ‘for our safety.’ In fact, flyers are at the bottom of the pile of priorities, masks or not.
    Ah, I also spot, down here at the bottom, the trust many people once had for US carriers.

  22. Airlines need take this time to review seating policies especially for passengers of size. Delta told me if I don’t wan to share my space (ie let the other paasenger put up the armrest and take part of my seat) then I can take another flight. This is both a health and safety issue. Airlines especially delta need to enforce Faa regulations that require armrests to be down. I realize seats are tight. But I am unwilling to share my space. Same goes for someone who tries to put their feet in my space. Fix this issue for the safety of everyone

  23. Gary, u sound just like Donald Trump. Next u can defend the use of Clorox. Pity that u are aiding and abetting death by defending death traps. U r an accomplice.

  24. The reality is that there are many things that people do that are more dangerous than the virus, more dangerous than flying, and more dangerous than those 2 combined so all the sheep need to stop lecturing others
    If you don’t want to fly then don’t but STFU as every day all of us are exposed willingly and unwillingly to far more unsafe practices
    No vaccine for SARS, ebola, swine flu, and yet nobody cares about it
    Let’s move on…nothing to see here (drumroll….let the bashing comments begin…)

  25. While I don’t for a second blame any airline for working to fill every possible seat on a flight, I really have to call bullshit on this supposed “blocking out middle seats” nonsense. The photo posted here clearly shows that’s not true. In other words, the airline is lying.

  26. You say that ‘’if you are concerned about sitting near other people it may not be a good idea to fly right now.’’ But what about all those people you list who need to fly – medical personnel, people visiting a dying loved one, or someone who has to deliver a child under a custody order? Your conclusion is too glib.

    Masks should be compulsory. Don’t let airlines off the hook when they could easily act to fill the void In this respect left by a dysfunctional administration in Washington that has shown little sign of competently managing this crisis. Let’s focus on getting to the right result.

  27. Why are credit card and points bloggers willfully supportive of the industry that they follow egregiously violating all norms and rules of safety by cramming people into virus incubators and ignoring all public health guidelines.

  28. 1) Everyone should be wearing a mask in public out of safety, courtesy and respect for others during the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be mandatory and the airlines should ensure compliance. 2) With the number of planes sitting idle, now is the time for US carriers to retrofit their planes with new designs that accommodate social distancing. For years, our personal space has been severely compromised to the point where it’s created animosity between passengers, while the airlines reaped the profits. When the public begins to fly again, don’t think lost revenue costs won’t be passed on fliers and part of that should be reflected in increased personal space!

  29. I’m not sure what in Sara’s outrage is so outrageous. She didn’t say anything about a middle seat. She wants people to wear masks and refrain from flights that are not essential. If everyone on the plane wears a mask at all times, the infection risk will go down dramatically. If everyone stops being a baby and refrains from all non-essential travel, we won’t have a second wave.

    What exactly is wrong about it?

    Unfortunately, everything above is a wishful thinking, and we WILL have a second wave because we are nothing BUT babies, after all.

  30. To Andy S.
    Unfortunately, the truthful response to your post is, “yep.”
    Were that it was not so.

  31. You can’t blame the airlines for filling middle seats. The bottom line is that the profit margins for airlines are pretty tight, and they can’t make money by selling cheap tickets and flying half-empty planes. If passengers want half of the seats (or one-third) of the seats on planes to remain empty, they need to be prepared to PAY for the costs of flying empty seats. At 50% capacity, each occupied seat will be 100% more expensive, and at 66% capacity, each occupied seat will cost 50% more. (Maybe a little less allowing for fuel savings and lower staffing needs). And that just provides an illusion of social distancing, as the people in front of you and behind you are still well within six feet of you. They are within three feet of you. You can’t ask the airlines to lose money on every flight just so you can have an illusion of added safety.

  32. Does anyone care that masks are essentially worthless? Does anyone care about that fact? Has everyone forgotten that they have an immune system and that that is what keeps you healthy, not a mask? In fact, wearing a cloth mask may increase your chances of getting ill. The fear, the loathing of others? Is this living? So afraid of dying, we stop living. SMH. https://www.lewrockwell.com/2020/04/dr-david-brownstein/we-must-wear-face-masks-show-me-the-science-behind-that/

  33. @Jake You have made an excellent observation, but you’ve answered your own question. We the readers are not Gary’s customers. Chase, Citibank, and American Express (meaning Southwest, United, American, and Delta Airlines) are Gary’s customers.

    This reality is how we end up with comical situations like today. Jetblue announces mandatory masks on all its flights, and Gary and his commenters shower praise, yet just hours later when a shill for the stewardesses’ union calls for masks on flights, Gary, and the credit card shills who populate Gary’s comments, scream with faux outrage at the prospect of masks.

  34. @Kathleen
    I could not have said it better
    Problem is with the social media trained sheep
    If people dont want to fly then they can stay home but lecturing others just because someone thinks the mask helps is total BS

  35. @Kathleen
    Everyone in a surgery wears a mask. Want to explain why they wear “essentially worthless” masks in surgery?

  36. Masks should not be mandatory, not should airlines be responsible for enforcing that BS. If the airlines choose to make masks available, great. The airlines are responsible for getting me from point a to point b without crashing on the way. You know who is responsible for your health and safety? YOU are. If you feel that your life is in such imminent danger, then YOU should drive to your destination or stay home, safe and sound. The rest of us have family to feed and mortgages to pay.

  37. Als, never said a word about surgical quality masks serving a purpose in surgery–which is essentially to protect against blood and fluid splatter–not nanometer sized viruses.

  38. @Kathleen – try quoting a site w/an actual scientific bent (that’s not hard hard right), and then we’ll talk

  39. “American will not assign 50% of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats on every flight, and WILL ONLY USE THOSE MIDDLE SEATS WHEN NECESSARY,” the carrier’s temporary policy reads.
    I’m guessing by “necessary,” they mean “whenever someone wants to pay for one.” Just say so, American. Quit pretending.

  40. @ e – Why do you assume people want to go on a cheap vacation and that’s the reason so many people are flying? Everything is CLOSED . ..nothing to see at home, nothing to see on vacation. If you don’t think it is safe, stay home. Nobody is making anyone fly anywhere right now.

  41. The irony for Ms. Nelson is those planes fly full NOW or ‘her people’ lose their jobs in October. It’s just that simple. Of course, it will never impact her and other union leaders.

  42. As a scientist I could not disagree with you more Greg and that flight was a mistake. It will have consequences. This isn’t being “self righteous”. It’s advocating safety. For those who will fall ill I hope those on hospital front line taking care of them can be protected

  43. Self absorbed selfish people. Some9en from highly infected NY should not be allowed to fly anywhere.

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