The CEO of an industry group representing major U.S. airlines reportedly balked at federal health officials’ complaints that flying passenger planes at full capacity during the coronavirus pandemic is dangerous, and argued Tuesday that social distancing on planes is impossible.
“You can’t social distance on an airplane,” Nicholas E. Calio, the CEO of Airlines for America (A4A), said in a call with reporters, according to The Hill. “We believe there are safety measures in place on a multilevel basis that makes flying safe, in fact, safer than many other activities.”
He cited grocery shopping as one of the activities that’s less safe than flying on a full plane.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has expressed “substantial disappointment” with American Airlines’ decision to fill planes to capacity starting Wednesday.
“When they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Redfield said Tuesday during a Senate committee hearing.
Redfield’s comment came in response to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asking why there are no federal guidelines for social distancing on public transportation. Redfield said American Airlines’ decision to pack planes is under “critical review” from the CDC and that “we don’t think it’s the right message.”
American Airlines is part of the A4A, as are Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.
All of the planes among A4A’s airliners are said to be equipped with HEPA air filters, which are capable of removing 99.9% of airborne particles.
Jean-Brice Dumont, executive vice president for engineering at plane manufacturer Airbus, said in a Facebook Live video back in May that the air in a plane’s cabin is refreshed every two to three minutes and blown vertically from the ceiling to the ground, where it is recaptured for filtration. He stressed the importance of all passengers wearing a mask during the flight to help keep airborne particles at a minimum.
The CDC’s website also acknowledges the importance of these air filters, stating that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” Still, a full flight would put passengers within inches of each another for an extended amount of time, which the CDC’s website notes could increase one’s risk of exposure to the virus. As Sanders pointed out, the CDC recommends people keep 6 feet between them whenever possible.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged this social distancing issue at the Senate hearing and called American’s decision “something that is of concern.”
“I would hope that there would be something to mitigate against that because ... I think in the confines in an airplane [the virus] becomes even more problematic,” he said.
An A4A spokesperson, responding to HuffPost’s inquiry on Calio’s social distancing comments, cited the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization and its recent findings that social distancing on an aircraft may not be “feasible.”
The organization, whose council adopts standards and recommendations for international air travel, recommended that “adequate risk-based measures” be used. Such measures would include passengers wearing a face covering or mask and undergoing health screenings. Planes would also undergo routine sanitation.
In a statement to HuffPost, an American Airlines spokesperson did not address Redfield’s and Fauci’s disapproval but instead reiterated the airline’s current safety measures.
“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,” they said.
A4A announced Monday that all of its member carriers will require passengers to wear a mask and complete a health survey prior to checking in. Passengers are supposed to be asked if they have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus in the last 14 days or with someone who has had symptoms.
Passengers who do not complete the health survey “may be deemed unfit to travel and each carrier will resolve the matter in accordance with its own policies,” A4A’s website states.
The A4A spokesperson, in an email to HuffPost, reiterated that each carrier will make its own determination as to how to respond to a ticket holder who admits to recent contact with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patient.
A4A said last week that its member carriers will voluntarily refund tickets for passengers who have an elevated temperature during a health screening prior to travel.