There’s a trend I’ve noticed recently, and I’m not sure where exactly the blame falls — on the passengers, on airlines, on regulators, or on all three parties.
“Look everyone, my flight was full!”
There has been a significant uptick in outrage in the past week or so regarding full flights. I can’t count the number of national news stories I’ve seen about specific instances of full flights.
For example, take the below Tweet regarding an American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte on Saturday, where a Twitter user was outraged by how full her flight was:
Well silly me thinking that an airline would adhere to social distancing guidelines. Currently abroad a nearly full @AmericanAir flight and I’ve never felt less safe or cared for in my entire life
Well silly me thinking that an airline would adhere to social distancing guidelines. Currently abroad a nearly full @AmericanAir flight and I’ve never felt less safe or cared for in my entire life pic.twitter.com/sx5STfHKBI
— erin strine (@ErinStrine) April 25, 2020
I totally get it, I’d probably feel uncomfortable as well. But that’s also exactly what I would expect if I got on a plane right now.
By the way, for those wondering why the person was flying (I think we all can’t help but be curious), a news report suggests that her grandmother passed away recently and she wanted to be with her family. Make of that what you will.
Should we be outraged by full flights?
I firmly believe airlines, regulators, and passengers are at fault for this being newsworthy, though I’m not sure how to prioritize that, exactly. Let me share some overall thoughts, and then I’m curious what you guys think.
First of all, it’s maybe worth discussing why flights are now often full. It’s not that everyone is suddenly flying (though there is a slight uptick in traffic), but rather it’s because airlines are finally getting around to cancelling flights, as they should.
Previously airlines were operating flights with maybe a dozen passengers on them. While that’s good for social distancing, it’s bad for the environment, and also bad for taxpayers (because it causes airlines to unnecessarily burn through money, and they’ll no doubt be looking for more government aid soon).
With that in mind…
Regulators need to require face masks
The first issue with these full flight scenarios is that not everyone is wearing a mask. With the CDC recommending face masks in situations where social distancing isn’t possible, why is there no government regulation requiring face masks to be worn on planes?
It makes zero sense to me. Even under the best of circumstances social distancing isn’t really possible on planes, so why are we continuing to allow passengers onto planes without face masks?
Airlines are doing a bad job managing expectations
Airlines are largely doing a terrible job managing expectations with regards to social distancing. I wrote about this situation at United Airlines a few days ago.
Airlines claim to be promoting social distancing and to be “blocking” seats, though in reality some airlines are only blocking seat assignments in advance, and will still sell out a flight completely.
In other words, they’ll just assign the seat next to you to someone at the gate, rather than in advance, which does zero for social distancing.
Consumers are easily misled here, as airlines like United will sell every last seat on a plane if they can. The extent of their social distancing efforts is basically to say “hey, if there are empty seats on a plane there is also some social distancing, but we’ll certainly try to sell every last seat.”
I can see how people board a plane thinking they’ll have an empty middle seat, and then being shocked to find a full flight. Airlines need to do a better job with messaging.
Passengers need to be realistic
This is the part where I feel like some personal accountability is needed:
- Many complaints about full flights revolve around other passengers not wearing masks; I agree it’s a problem, but we also know there are no regulations requiring that, so you should board a flight expecting that a person seated near you won’t be wearing a mask
- I think the Tweet above sums up another common belief — “well silly me thinking that an airline would adhere to social distancing guidelines”
As Ryanair’s CEO explains, social distancing on a plane is ultimately an illusion. Even if an airline blocked middle seats:
- That still only puts you under two feet away from a person to the side of you, which is only a third of the recommended amount of social distancing
- You’re still literally only inches from the person in front or behind you
If airlines were actually going to maintain six feet of distance between passengers, on a narrow body you could have two passengers in every three rows, meaning every 18 seats could accommodate only two people. That way there would be four seats and two full rows between passengers.
Airlines have never promised six feet between people, so if anyone expects airlines to “adhere to social distancing guidelines,” that’s entirely on them. If it’s an empty middle seat you’re after, that still doesn’t make you safe.
As airlines cut capacity by 80-90%, expect more of those flights operating to actually be reasonably full. I suspect that also means the amount of full flight outrage will increase.
Personally I think there’s enough blame to go around here — many airlines are misleading consumers with fake social distancing measures, regulators should be requiring that passengers wear face masks, and passengers should stop being delusional, because even if middle seats were blocked, that still wouldn’t make you “safe.”
There’s a reason I’m not flying right now (in addition to just wanting to do the right thing), and that if I needed to get somewhere within the US, I would just drive.
We all have the responsibility to look after ourselves, and if being on a full flight is going to make you the feel the least safe you’ve felt in your life, then I’d highly recommend another form of transportation (like a rental car) if at all possible.
Where do you stand on this — who is to blame for the full flight outrage?