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No Social Distancing on Flights. That’s Technically an Upgrade

No Social Distancing on Flights. That’s Technically an Upgrade
Marcy Knaves

Last week, on March 24th, American Airlines made headlines when it announced that it would allow the passengers on flights to social distance to avoid the in-cabin spread of the coronavirus. However, American Airlines flight attendants have spoken out to say that, even after the announcement, passengers are still “crammed” into rows.

The Death of a Flight Attendant

On March 23rd, American Airlines lost its first flight attendant to the coronavirus. A day later, on March 24th, the world’s largest carrier–by fleet size and number of passengers–announced that it would no longer serve meals or snacks on flights shorter than 2,200 miles (and would reduce food service for longer flights).

It would also introduce social distancing by blocking 50% of “standard” middle seats and allowing passengers to change seats once onboard “provided there aren’t any aircraft weight or balance restrictions” and that they moved within their ticketed cabin.

Three days later, on March 27th, American announced more stringent changes: due to “decreased customer demand and government travel restrictions related to coronavirus,” they were reducing capacity by 60 to 90%.

“Too Little Too Late”

Today, roughly a week after American Airlines’ policy changes, flight attendants spoke to Mother Jones about “what they believe is a severe lack of communication from the company, as well as an attendance policy that punishes employees for getting sick.”

One flight attendant said that the treatment of airline personnel in the past few weeks was “like sheep for slaughter.”

Yesterday, a clip of an American Airlines flight on March 31st 2020 went viral for its extreme lack of social distancing. Watch it above, read more about it here

All Crammed Into the Last Few Rows

One of their most common complaints was the lack of social distancing on flights. 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.”

After the new March 24th policy, the same flight attendant reported working 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.

View Comments (13)


  1. D2travel

    April 2, 2020 at 5:31 am

    Damn airlines, why the US gov would give them a bailout is ridiculous, magical thinking!

  2. velcro_dog

    April 2, 2020 at 5:59 am

    Typical AA greed still heavily in play during this crisis. Delta would not have this happening. They have never had a problem redistributing passenger seat assignments in the best of times. American Airlines operates on the same theory as Snowpiercer .

  3. guwinster

    April 2, 2020 at 6:15 am

    Bro, if the flight attendants didn’t take it upon themselves to spread the customers out in those situations, I don’t know what to say.

    Are they genuinely concerned that they will get in trouble if they move someone from a non-biz/non-MCE seat to another non-biz/non-MCE seat?

  4. Podcat

    April 2, 2020 at 6:42 am

    Airlines losing most of their customers?

    Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.


    April 2, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Why would anyone need social distancing once the virus has passed? When it is over, travel will revert to exactly like what it was the day before.

  6. jrpallante

    April 2, 2020 at 9:22 am

    Did the airlines’ bottom line really benefit from creating Basic Economy? This effort to make air travel more accessible to a greater number of people seems to have resulted in constant attacks upon the airlines from every direction: politicians, passengers who demand more than they paid for, travel blogs like FT that continually criticize every aspect of the industry, etc. I hope any increase in net income was sufficient to offset the non-stop attacks.

  7. paperclip55

    April 2, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    Hey jr, remember the airlines started this mess

  8. Global321

    April 4, 2020 at 4:44 am

    The computer most likely put the passengers in the last few rows automatically.
    If they stayed there, it was by choice.
    FA’s can always move people around.
    If FA refused, they are not following AA current policy.

    Story may be factually correct AND still leave out many facts. (Like moving people around.)


  9. hedoman

    April 5, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    Blasphemy using the name American Airlines. It’s USAir since whenever they purchased the name and ditched the goodwill.

  10. mvoight

    April 6, 2020 at 4:02 am

    The computer assigned the seats
    This happened on the first day of AA’s implementation to put more space between people.
    I suspect many flight attendants forgot about it or never got the notice.
    In any case the problem was fixed and they were allowed to move
    Nobody forced them to buy BASIC Economy which does not give your a choice of seats.

  11. mvoight

    April 6, 2020 at 4:17 am

    The computer assigned the seats
    This happened on the first day of AA’s implementation to put more space between people.
    I suspect many flight attendants forgot about it or never got the notice.
    In any case the problem was fixed and they were allowed to move
    Nobody forced them to buy BASIC Economy which does not give your a choice of seats.
    The video seems to show only one row with 3 people. I suspect at least 2 of them were traveling together.
    Also 11 people in the last 3 rows is 11 of 18 seats or about 60 percent that would have left 7 seats in the 3 rows, so enough space to have all of the middle seats free, plus a group of 3 seats with only 1 person.

  12. Airrage


    April 7, 2020 at 9:06 am

    Sorry, but airlines just suck. Honestly wish I could avoid them. They have less than a clue as to customer service.

  13. skidooman

    April 9, 2020 at 9:59 am


    Nobody forced them to buy basic economy indeed. So… if they get infected as a result of being exiled to tight quarters, then it is necessarily their own fault, and the society shouldn’t care.

    Sorry, but the truth is that society should probably put a floor under some of these conditions. We do not let buy cheap cars without air bags and seat belts for obvious reasons, yet we let airlines pack too many seats per square inch that is healthy or safe in case of an emergency.

    And albeit basic econ doesn’t fit it the “safety concern” category (since they did not introduce the bicycle seat extremely high density seats, that is not yet), it does fit in the “scam” one: the airlines know perfectly well that travelers will need to bring a bag and just try to bait and switch these people into buying “upgrades”.

    In any case, it is now a matter of public health. And that has an impact on OUR health. They get infected, they become vectors for the virus, and the more there are of them and the more likely you and I get infected. So all these talks of “nobody forced them to buy basic economy” need to go right out of the nearest window. Airlines want to fly? Distantiation they must practice, period.

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