- Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon just introduced a bill that would ban US air carriers from booking middle seats.
- The MIDDLE Act would prevent airlines from assigning seats next to an occupied seat, and eliminate fees for passengers who must change seats to comply.
- A crowded June 2 flight on American Airlines prompted the senator to take action after seeing firsthand how the airline was handling social distancing in the skies.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced legislation on Thursday that would prevent airlines from assigning middle seats, as the debate over social distancing in the skies rages between the country’s top airlines.
The Maintaining Important Distance During Lengthy Epidemics Act of 2020, also known as the MIDDLE Act, would require airlines to block middle seats and put an end to the debate between airlines over whether doing so is a boon for public health or just a savvy marketing move. If passed, it would be the first federal law to require proactive social distancing by airlines onboard aircraft.
“Filling planes to capacity, forcing passengers to sit shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time, is incredibly irresponsible during a pandemic,” Merkley said in a statement, echoing his June 2 tweet to American Airlines. “I’ve seen with my own eyes that airlines are willing to put their profit margins ahead of the health of their customers.”
The bill would prevent airlines from “filling a seat adjacent to another occupied seat,” meaning that middle seats and one of the seats in a two-seat row would be blocked, according to the press release. That would cut capacity by a third in planes with three seats on each side of the aisle, and by half in regional aircraft in a 2-2 configuration.
Airlines would also be prevented from charging customers who wish to move to a new seat in accordance with the proposed regulations.
Merkley felt prompted to act on the issue following a crowded flight he took on American Airlines, the country’s largest airline, which stopped blocking middle seats at the end of May. The senator took to Twitter to blast the airline, stating that the practice of not blocking the seats was “incredibly irresponsible.”
—Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 2, 2020
Less than a week before the tweet, the airline announced its flights would be booked to capacity beginning July 1. American had been capping flight loads at 85% for the month of June, as Business Insider found on two American Airlines flights early that month.
Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines are currently the only two airlines out of the four largest airlines in the US that are limiting middle seats, as Business Insider found on recent trips in June. Both have vowed to keep the policy in place until the end of September, when federal aid under the CARES Act is set to expire, with Delta CEO Ed Bastian hinting at extending it further, USA Today reported.
Merkley’s bill would also require passengers and crew to wear a mask when traveling on carriers operating in the US. All 11 major US airlines now require passengers to wear masks onboard their aircraft.
“If taxpayers are going to bail out airlines because they provide an essential service, it is not too much to expect the airlines not to make the pandemic worse,” Merkley said.