Consolidated flights leave planes full and passengers uneasy

Southwest airlines jets are stored at Sky Harbor International Airport Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Phoenix. Southwest Airlines posted its first quarterly loss in almost a decade and sees no improvement in air travel through June due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Matt York)

By DAVID KOENIG AP Airlines Writer

DALLAS (AP) — Many flights are nearly empty these days, but the high number of cancellations by airlines trying to save money occasionally lead to a flight like the one that Vince Warburton took this week.

During a three-hour layover at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Warburton noticed a crowd gathering in the gate area before his American Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

“People were laughing at the fact that (gate agents) were encouraging us to social-distance while boarding the plane, and there were so many people in line,” said the 32-year-old video engineer, who was commuting to a job.

The laughter didn’t last long.

“When we got on the plane, we were all sitting right next to each other,” said Warburton, who was flying on a discount ticket and was assigned a middle seat in a full row. “People were very uneasy. I was very uncomfortable.”

Airline executives say they know that customers must feel safe before they’ll venture from sheltering at home to getting on a plane, and they have taken some steps.

This week, JetBlue Airways became the first U.S. airline to require passengers to wear face coverings during flights, and Frontier Airlines said Thursday that it would begin requiring masks starting May 8. Other airlines say they encourage passengers to wear masks, and several require flight attendants to wear them.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which says 300 of its members have contracted COVID-19, and some Democrats in Congress are pushing the Trump administration to require that passengers wear masks.

Air travel is “a major vector for COVID-19,” said Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he pressed the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to require face coverings for all passengers and crew and to require airlines to take “reasonable” steps to keep passengers at safe distances from each other.

In a statement, the FAA said Administrator Stephen Dickson expects airlines to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recommended that everyone wear face coverings when in public.

A few airlines say they are blocking some or all middle seats to create social distancing.

That is possible now on most flights but will become more difficult when passengers begin returning in bigger numbers — airlines would forfeit revenue if they block seats then. It is also more difficult on smaller regional jets; passengers might be seated near each other to balance the plane’s load.

Princess Johnson, a bus driver in Chicago, said she felt claustrophobic on a recent flight to Indianapolis because the few passengers had to sit in one section of the plane.

“If somebody sneezed, we all would have been sick,” said Johnson, who added that she was one of only a few passengers wearing a mask.

Mike Ritchie said just about everybody on his American Airlines flight home from Orlando, Florida, wore a mask.

“Good flight. Not so many people,” he said. “The flight attendants made sure everybody was spaced well, and I would fly again if I had to.”

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said this week that his airline is considering filling flights no more than two-thirds full so that middle seats can always be empty. He said steps like those might be necessary to make passengers feel safe, but he was clear he views them as temporary steps.

“I don’t accept that forever more people are going to stay six feet apart and wear masks for the rest of our lives,” Kelly said.

American Airlines said it will start providing masks for passengers who want them. The CEO, Doug Parker, said his airline will see how requiring masks works at JetBlue, but he has reservations about enforcing a mandatory policy.

“We want to be careful about putting our team in the position of being police on that,”

Parker told The Associated Press. “What we’re hoping instead is that virtually all customers will choose for their own protection and out of respect for others on the airplane to wear a mask in flight.”

Almost every airline says it is stepping up cleaning of planes, sometimes including the use of misting machines to spray anti-viral chemicals inside the cabin. They are also trying to persuade passengers that air inside the cabin is safe to breathe.

Cabin air on most jetliners is a mix of fresh air from the outside and recirculated air that is passed through high-efficiency or HEPA filters designed to trap most airborne particles.

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