Passengers Forced To Cram Together On Flights While Rows Remain Empty
Photo Credit: @manrikphoto via Twenty20

Photo Credit: @manrikphoto via Twenty20

Passengers Forced To Cram Together On Flights While Rows Remain Empty

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Parker Diakite
Parker Diakite Jul 13, 2020

On a crowded American Airlines flight from Dallas to Newark, Joy Gonzalez, who was seated at a window, decided to move to the seat behind her where at least two rows were empty.

She and the aisle passenger moved to adhere to social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control as the country works to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

But right before takeoff, a flight attendant told both passengers that they were required to sit in their assigned seats because they did not pay for the exit row seats they switched to. Exit row seats are typically more expensive because of the additional legroom.  

Despite Gonzalez’s request, the flight attendants gave her two options: take your assigned seat or return to the gate and pay for the exit row, as reported in The New York Times.

“The irony of then hearing on the public address system, ‘Your health and safety is our top priority,’” said Gonzalez, who posted photos of the full and empty rows on Instagram. “Behind me, seats went empty and wasted while I was squished and touching someone.”

Airlines announced early on during the coronavirus pandemic that they would work to practice social distancing in the air by reducing the capacity of flights and blocking middle seats.

But these promises have since been thrown out the window as a struggling industry works to rebound after the current health crisis put a halt to the number of people traveling through airports.

Air travel dipped more than 95% from March 1 until mid-April. Fourth of July weekend recorded the highest number of U.S. air travelers since mid-March but the total amount of travelers was still down about 70% from a year ago.

Now that air travel is picking back up,  some airlines are putting profit over health.

As of July 1, American Airlines announced it would begin filling its planes at capacity after capping at 85 percent in April.

Its new policy prompted Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) to take to Twitter to criticize the airline for packed flights.

A spokesperson for American denied that this is their policy.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the airline, wrote in an email that the restriction “appears to be in error, as we are permitting customers to move within the main cabin, including Main Cabin Extra seats,” which include exit rows.

United Airlines plans to do the same but said customers will be contacted 24 hours before departure if their flights approach full capacity so they can decide whether to adjust their plans. 

There are some airlines that remain committed to blocking the middle seat into early fall.

Southwest Airlines is blocking middle seats through Sept. 30. Delta Air Lines has reduced capacity to 60 percent in its main cabin by blocking middle seats or, in a two-by-two seat row, aisle seats, through Sept. 30.