Did American Airlines “Force” Passengers To Sit Next To One Another On An Empty Flight?

Filed Under: American

Look, I’ll be the first to call out American Airlines when they do something wrong, but something about this story doesn’t add up…

American Airlines flight attendant speaks out

Mother Jones has a story about an American Airlines flight attendant speaking out, talking about how American Airlines is failing to protect employees. It describes the situation as being “Like Sheep for Slaughter.”

Some valid points are made, like that for a while American Airlines wouldn’t let employees wear face masks (a policy that I thought was ridiculous, and that I’ve written about). I very much empathize with the current situation flight attendants are in, and think airlines on the whole need to do more to protect employees.

But then there’s this nugget, from an anonymous flight attendant:

One of the most common complaints among flight attendants was of a lack of social distancing measures onboard. One flight attendant described a March 24 flight that carried 11 people total—all crammed in the last three rows. “The reasoning behind it is, well, they bought basic economy fares, so we can’t put them further up in the cabin, because that would be an upgrade,” she explained. She said that the flight attendants “took it upon ourselves to spread them out.”

In recent days, the airline has announced some steps intended to address those issues. On March 24—the same day as the trip described by the flight attendant—the company issued a new policy stating that “gate agents may reassign seats to create more space between customers” and that “customers can move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.” It also said that 50 percent of standard middle seats and all seats bordering flight attendant jump seats would be left empty. But even after March 24, the same flight attendant worked a flight with 15 people seated in the last six rows of the plane. No one was seated ahead of the exit row, she said, because that’s a different pricing tier.

@xJonNYC then points to this story from Business Insider. They picked up on the Mother Jones story (which made a bigger point, in my opinion), but they zoomed in on this exact detail and sensationalized it. The headline is “American Airlines crammed the only 11 passengers on a flight into 3 rows because they only bought basic economy, report says.”

This story suggests that the airline “forced” passengers to sit right next to one another.

Why this story doesn’t make much sense…

When I read this story for the first time something didn’t quite add up. I reached out to American Airlines to clarify a few things, and that more or less confirmed my suspicions about this story.

There are a few issues:

  • American Airlines’ policy allows for passengers to move within the same class of service, even before the new social distancing guidelines were released; in other words, passengers could have freely moved around even without the crew proactively offering it (yes, this includes basic economy passengers)
  • The flight attendant allegedly claimed “we can’t put them further up in the cabin, because that would be an upgrade,” and that’s simply false; Main Cabin Extra is a separate cabin, but sitting in the fourth to last row is no “upgrade” in any form over the third to last row
  • It seems highly suspicious to suggest that the passengers were all seated in the last three and last six rows; the last row is always reserved for airport control and is blocked, so passengers would never be assigned those seats unless the plane was full
  • While it’s possible that the crew knew the passengers were all basic economy, their discovery of that is rather surprising, as I’ve never seen a flight attendant identify a passenger as such; this isn’t something that proactively shows up on their tablets, but rather they’d have to click on each individual passenger to see the details of their ticket

If the story is in fact true, there’s only one logical explanation — that this had to do with weight & balance. Even then that doesn’t make sense, though:

  • If that’s the case, then this is being done with regard for everyone’s safety, rather than neglecting everyone’s safety
  • If that’s the case, I assume the flight attendants would have been informed of this, and wouldn’t have reseated passengers

Bottom line

I can be tough on American Airlines, but in this case I can’t help but feel like something doesn’t add up.

There certainly doesn’t deserve to be a story about how American has no regard for the safety of passengers by “forcing” them to sit in the last rows all next to one another, when American’s policy freely allows people to reseat themselves, not to mention that the last row wouldn’t typically be assigned in these situations.

The irony is that this complaint comes from a flight attendant who claims s/he essentially would be violating policy by reseating people, when the flight attendant doesn’t seem to understand the company’s policy.

This is one thing I’ll give American Airlines a pass on…

What’s your take on this situation?

  1. So, putting aside the fact that the “Media” is over sensationalizing anything they can find, In current climate, why is there a need for Basic Economy? The terms of basic economy do not fit the mission statement of the airlines during these crisis.

    A quick search from MIA – DFW 5 days from now shows Basic Economy @ $28 and Main Cabin @ $68, Why? Offer it at $44 and call it a day, make life for the front line employees easy.

    I would love to give airlines a pass, but considering the current guidelines and reassuring videos from CEO’s, the Idea that Basic Economy exists right now, shows that the story is entirely plausible.

  2. This story may not be true. But this is exactly what hk express did on a flight after the outbreak. All passengers sat in 5 rows together. When I asked to social distance they wanted to charge to move to any other seat. Apparently this is standard practice for them, they even advertise this fact on board. But to do this when everyone is encouraging social distancing is a disgrace. The flight was at the end of February when Chinese cases were at a peak.

  3. Ben, Main Cabin Extra is not a separate cabin (AA does not even use “floating dividers” to separate the Main Cabin Extra rows from the rest of the Main Cabin) nor a distinct class-of-service. The only exception to this is when Premium Economy-equipped widebody aircraft are flying domestic routes and in such cases, the Premium Economy cabin is treated as Main Cabin Extra.

  4. I’ve flown in American Basic Economy, and once assigned a seat, I was able to change it by talking to a gate agent. She moved me from a middle seat toward the back to an exit row seat. I was polite and asked if there were any aisle or window seats available instead, and she offered the exit row. This story seems false to me, particularly with COVID-19. Wouldn’t they want to distribute the weight also?

  5. if it was a 737, those things are notoriously nose-heavy – so on a light flight with no bags or cargo, they do have to put all the passengers behind the wing.

  6. Everything isn’t always what it seems. There maybe more to this story and it might relate to the aircraft type. If there were only 11 passengers, there may have been a weight and balance issue which necessitated people sitting together in the rear until takeoff and then once again for landing.

    It may have been a problem of miscommunication that could’ve been solved with more info.

  7. I was recently on an AA from dfw to phl. When a passenger asked if he could move from his seat to another seat the FA asked what more do you want. Our flight had 22 people on it I had someone directly behind me and he was in front of me. We were in assigned seats on basic. They didn’t want anyone of us in a paid seat closer to the front with more legroom and less people around.

  8. This story is complete BS – I am a flight attendant with AA. When I first read the MJ article the whole scenario i not add up. Never have we been given guidance to NOT reseat a customer to a more desirable location, on full lights you do use discretion with not reseating ahead of a MAIN CABIN CABIN customer who paid the premium. WE are on the aircraft primarily to get your butt out under 90 seconds in an emergency and to perform all safety and first aid duties. Seconarily we are there to make your journey a comfortable one. When you cross the threshold to the aircraft we have sole discretion to reseat you to a more comfortable seat PERIOD. The FA associated with the M Jones article was most likely a very Junior crew member who is facing a furlough after September 31st. The fabrication of this story was drummed up by a disgruntled and stressed out FA. Mother Jones should be ASHAMED of themselves for being lured in by this individual.

  9. Lucky: please use this opportunity to write up those trips you promised or started to write and then abandoned.

  10. Yep, I can vouch for the horrible policy of Kong Kong Express of seating all customers tightly to gether to mae it as uncomfortable as possible. I was on a recent BKK-HKG flight and people wanted to spread out but nope – the attendants were demanding money to change seats – just horrible!

  11. I flew JFK to Boston recently. I checked the seat map and unrelated passengers were all assigned clustered near one another. I asked the gate agent if I could be reseated. Her response: “I’ll have to charge you.” I said ok, I’ll just request from the FA upon boarding. Her response “They’ll charge you too.” So, this story is true and AA sucks.

  12. The seats were assigned automatically as they were Basic Economy passengers. When the issue was discovered after boarding, the gate agents came on and ‘socially distanced’ the passengers. As noted by CK this story is the result of a disgruntled employee.

  13. I’ve been on several AA flights in the past few weeks, and the FAs have invited passengers in economy to move to any open seat once boarding has completed.

  14. Most of what CK says is probably true. However, CK makes up their own items. Saying it is “The fabrication of this story was drummed up by a disgruntled and stressed out FA. ” is made up. CK has no idea who said this; it could be a bitter old FA. AA has a lot of them.

    Same for Trevor. Great point about seats being automatically assigned. But Trevor repeats an assumption as fact.

  15. My friend was one of the few on this flight flying from JFK to LAX. She backs up the flight attendant’s claims. They couldn’t move and even asked to be moved. I did, however, question why on earth she bought a basic economy ticket. If you’d like to reach out to her, I’m happy to put you in touch.

  16. American Airlines does seem to punish BE passengers in any way they can, and in my recent experience this does include forbidding passengers from selecting a different seat than what they were originally assigned (without paying extra). Delta will allow you to move freely within the same cabin without paying extra (unless you received a seat assignment more than 24 hours out, which I’ve seen happen- in those cases, you have to wait until the 24 hour mark to do so), and I believe United does the same.

  17. I am not going to defend AA or DOT here, even if story was only partially true.

    I am currently in Thailand and airlines here are REQUIRED to sit passengers as far apart as possible on flights to / from / within Thailand including foreign airlines. In addition all flight attendants are REQUIRED to wear masks at all times. And starting this week free masks are available at airports for passengers (not sure if passengers are required to wear them, but given that masks here are now required in all public places , they are probably required on planes too). Airlines that do not comply are not allowed to fly.

    I took domestic flight in Thailand last week and I was offered hand sanitizer as soon as I was sitted (albeit in C) and another hand sanitizer run before snack service and another before deplaning. My temperature was checked at the entry to the airport, again at security check point and my boarding pass was stamped accordingly. Then temperature rechecked on arrival.

    Did I mentioned that I walked into 7-11 store yesterday and bought several masks for about 0.50 cents each?

    America should wake up.

  18. I flew on an Air New Zealand code share flight operated by Singapore Air Lines from Singapore to Auckland in economy class on 2/29/2020. My wife and I were seated in left most seats of the 4 seat middle section. Very shortly after take off a young lady sitting our middle section row became ill. Three or four attendants came and were all interacting with this young lady. They acted very concerned, took her temperature and gave her some medicine (later told it was Tylenol). I then requested that either my wife and I be moved or that the young lady be moved. I was told that there were no seats to move to. The economy section was full (essentially true) – but I know there was plenty of room in the cabin in front of us. At some point I took my phone out and asked the flight attendant if he was refusing to relocate us or the ill passenger. He just shrugged his shoulders and would not reply. Later told me he could not allow me to record his voice. My wife also pointed out that they should move the young lady because there was an infant in the seat in front of her. Two and a half hours later they finally moved my wife to a seat in the very back row and me to a seat 4 or 5 rows behind the ill individual. However the individual next the new seat was also exhibiting signs of a very bad cold. He was wearing a mask most of the time but at one point he had his mask lowered to wipe his nose and coughed (not intentionally) and I felt it all over my arm. I went to the restroom, washed my hands and arm as best as I could, and then stood in the back of the plane the remaining 5 plus hours and only returned to my seat when required by the fasten seat lights. I also declined any food or drink because of the flight attendants prior interactions I observed with the young lady and an initial lack of gloves or masks.
    I also should point out that at one point the young lady required the toilet. They escorted her to it and when she left they put the toilet out of service – so at least some reasonable action was taken to try to limit exposure to other passengers – but this action strongly suggests they believed she was infectious.
    At no point were we offered the option to pay to move (we would surely have done that). We had reason to be so cautious. While in Singapore many places were being very vigilant about checking customers health. We could not enter our hotel without having our temperature checked and some shopping malls were funneling customers through a single entrance to ensure they had a temperature check. Some places even put a little stickem dot on you to signify you had been checked.
    BTW – our flight attendant was sympathetic and I believe he tried his best to find a solution – but I have the impression that his superiors would not allow it.
    So – yes, class distinction is alive and well on airlines. I promise you I will never fly Singapore Airlines again. Any airline who would put their customers’ health at risk does not deserve to fly.

  19. You mention you can be tough on American Airlines. Maybe the reason is somewhere on your website but I am new to it.

    Amongst all the US carriers are you specifically tough on American or other airlines too? If so, why?

  20. Never have I ever been on a near empty flight and not been allowed to move seats. total bs story. The only way this would happen is if some of all the passengers were assholes.

  21. Flew American AA 1460 today. Flight attendant advised all to “sit anywhere you want. If you want anything just push the call button.” So no scheduled refreshments but available by request.
    Just happy to be home!

  22. I think the story is probably mostly true. This article pokes technical holes in specific words. People usually speak in generalities and that doesn’t make them inaccurate. For example, maybe it wasn’t exactly the last 3 rows, but if any normal person were to take a step back and look at the seating chart, I’ll bet that those folks were essentially congregated together in the back, with the rest of the plane empty. I’ll bet it looked very lopsided and not at all consistent with social distancing. But author was able to dismiss this claim on technical grounds. And I’ll bet that there are lots of company policies that may have technically allowed for this or that, but only the airlines legal department and people that are really into airlines (like the author) can realistically know or understand these. Passengers don’t really know their rights, are used to feeling screwed over by airlines, and are afraid of confrontation because of strict security policies. Flight attendants can be bullies and if you stand up to them, you may find yourself escorted off the plane and on NBC. I’ll be the incident is between 85-95% true, and this company is going to ask for a public bailout? That is BS. The goal should not be to keep the company profitable and lucrative for senior management, the goal is just to keep the flights in the air; companies can still operate in bankruptcy and other airlines or private equity can buy the pieces in breakup, or nationalize it.

  23. My daughter is in a plane right now, same damn thing. Alaska airlines between Seattle and Medford. Changed all seats to back of plane next to each other. Only 18 passengers. Such crap

  24. I flew American airlines today. I had a layover in DFW. Both of my flights had the passengers all sitting next to each other in a group while half the plane was empty. My first flight didn’t let people move. My second flight at least allowed us to move with restrictions.

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