American Airlines ending distancing among passengers

FILE - In this July 17, 2019, file photo shows American Airlines planes at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. In June, the last month for which government figures are available, American had the highest number of canceled flights among U.S. carriers. Its 4% cancellation rate was roughly double those of United and Southwest and nearly seven times Delta’s cancellation rate. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

HARLINGEN — American Airlines flights will end social-distancing in seating by allowing all middle seats to be sold and occupied beginning Wednesday.

The decision reverses protocols begun in April which blocked half of American’s middle seats in economy class in an effort to reduce passengers’ potential exposure to COVID-19.

While the smaller American planes flying in and out of Valley International Airport lack the middle seat aisle, it will affect travelers flying to American hubs and boarding larger planes.

“As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1,” the airline said in a statement. “American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost.”

American Airlines now joins United Airlines and some lesser carriers which have rescinded rules on flights that limited the sale of some seats to keep passengers apart.

“It was my impression all the time that you need to wear a mask or social distance and it’s really difficult on a plane to social distance, so they require a mask,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at Valley International, said Monday. “It’s kind of one or the other, so they’re probably reacting to that and saying OK, it really makes not as much sense to just hold the middle seats at this point, it makes more sense for people to wear the mask.”

Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines are still blocking passengers from occupying middle seats or restricting the total number of available seats on flights in order to allow passengers some extra room.

Hundreds of passenger flights in and out of Valley International have been canceled by airlines over the past few months in response to lower demand for travel by passengers worried about COVID-19.

In April, passenger enplanements at the airport were down 92 percent, and again down 82 percent in the month of May.

But the seats that are available are being sold, with load factors — the percentage of seats occupied on a flight in proportion to the number available — are rising into the 80 percent and 90 percent range, Esterly said.

“We really need more seats in the market in order to move much beyond where we are right now,” Esterly said. “We were looking at this about a week ago, and flights are filling up and it’s really kind of that demand has now caught supply that we have in the market currently.

“To get more enplanements — we’re averaging anywhere around that 300 mark a day — and to get more than that, we really need more seats in the market,” he added.

rkelley@valleystar.com