Blocking middle seats on planes is a ‘PR strategy, not a safety strategy,’ United says

A passenger looks at his phone while waiting aboard a United Airlines plane before taking off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 11, 2020 in Houston, Texas.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

United Airlines on Wednesday dismissed the notion that blocking some seats on board would keep passengers safer from Covid-19, as policies among U.S. airlines diverge.

Delta, JetBlue and Southwest have said they will blocking some seats on board, an effort to put travelers at ease about flying during the pandemic.

“When it comes to blocking middle seats, that’s a PR strategy, that’s not a safety strategy,” said Josh Earnest, United’s chief communications officer on a call with reporters. “When you’re on board the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within six feet from you, the person at the window is within six feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within six feet of you, the person in the row behind you are within six feet of you.”

Earnest’s comments come a day after two federal health officials criticized American Airlines for changing its policy to book flights to capacity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t immediately comment.

Both United and American alert passengers when their planes start filling up and, when available, offer the chance to switch to another flight.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers and team members,” American said in a statement. “We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including required face coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, and a pre-flight COVID-19 symptom checklist — and we’re providing additional flexibility for customers to change their travel plans, as well.”

United’s Earnest pointed to a series of measures United has used to keep passengers safe, including more intense cleaning of aircraft, social distancing during the boarding process and the use of face masks. The airline has also increased the use of touchless kiosks at airports.

All major U.S. airlines now require passengers wear masks and have threatened to ban travelers who don’t comply. They are also asking travelers a series of health questions before their flights.

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