The Most Creative Argument Yet For A Second Airline Bailout

The U.S. government allocated $50 billion in the CARES Act to bail out U.S. commercial airlines. The payroll support just delayed the economic recovery, with employees going to look for new job later than they would have without it. And the loans made no sense because airlines have continued to access capital markets, including more than $7 billion in fresh funds in the past 10 days alone.

Currently airlines are set to lay off staff October 1, when CARES Act restrictions expire. That’s one month before the Presidential election, creating incentives for the administration to get behind another bailout. Airline lobbyists have promoted the idea. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is talking about the possibility.

And the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, has a creative suggestion. They want the federal government to buy up all the middle seats or more specifically “purchase enough seats on each flight to eliminate the need for any passenger to sit next to a stranger.”

The SEATS concept calls for the price of empty seats to be based on industry average costs for 2019, leaving pre-pandemic business models unchanged. No carrier would gain an unfair advantage as a result of the disbursements. As immunity to COVID-19 rises, the number of empty seats bought by the government would fall.

Of course airline costs are lower now than in 2020 – they’ve been driving massive cost-cutting. And the most expensive airlines to operate would benefit most. It’s not surprising this is coming from the head of the pilots union at American Airlines, not Spirit or Frontier.

Some initial reactions:

  • This overfunds the airlines, not every flight sells enough seats where middles get assigned. And families traveling together can sit next to each other no problem.

  • Several airlines – Delta, JetBlue, Southwest – have been capping capacity on their own to avoid the need to assign middle seats.

  • Passengers can buy an extra seat themselves if they wish, why do taxpayers need to do it for them?

Most fundamentally, though, is flying safe or not? An empty middle seat isn’t social distancing. It means you’ve got about 18 inches of space between you and another passenger, and it does nothing to keep you away from the passengers in front and behind you.

Nonetheless airlines argue that flying is safe. Most mainline aircraft and large regional jets have HEPA air filtration, people face forward looking at the seats in front of them, they don’t talk that much, and masks are being required. They argue that social distancing isn’t necessary. Is that true, or isn’t it?

In fact we haven’t traced case clusters back to plane travel, where significant spread has been found to occur on aircraft. So suggesting this as a way to limit spread of the virus makes little sense.

Throughout the country restaurants, bars, and other businesses are being required to limit capacity without compensation. These local rules do not (and cannot) apply to airlines. Why should airlines be compensated when other businesses on the brink aren’t helped?

APA’s President says that providing this social distancing would encourage passengers “to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights” but if that’s true then airlines would have an incentive to do it themselves (indeed, you see that several are) and there’s no reason for the government to pay them to do what’s in their best interest.

The union says it “has begun discussing the SEATS concept with key lawmakers” to get it included in a CARES Act followup or passed as a standalone. Watch your wallets.

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, 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 — OMG, I hope politics blocks any and all relief bills for the rest of the year. Businesses and people need to fund their own bailouts, like I fund my own. I am so sick of everyone thinking they should be made whole in life at the expense of others. No one is doing that for me. Why don’t we just have Bernie Sanders for President, and we can all just sit around doing nothing.

  2. I think you are looking at this all wrong. I think that the government should buy me every se one beer at the bar too

  3. The massive surge in corona cases and Americans inability to wear masks avoid the beach, protests, riots, spring break. Memorial Day. And political rallies makes it clear Americans don’t give a crap about social distancing. No need to worry about it on planes. Americans have decided they don’t care

  4. Make it a stimulus-stimulus: if the airline can fill 90% of the window/aisle seats on a plane, the government will pay for every middle seat on the the plane, at the average cost of the tickets that were actually sold for that flight. The airline must proactively block all middle seats on the flight for it to be eligible, and also make masks mandatory.

    This would incentivize airlines to lower fares to whatever it takes to “fill” a plane and get people traveling again, while promoting social distancing.

  5. I don’t get this statement:
    Of course airline costs are lower now than in 2020

    I agree with Pat’s suggestions; there must be Strong incentives for the airlines to get more money and Substantive responsibilities for helping to decrease CV-19 risks.

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