With coronavirus cases accelerating again, American and United are taking a big risk with passengers' health and their own reputations. People are only starting to tiptoe back into air travel, still leery of entering confined spaces with strangers who may or may not wear masks and take other precautions. Bookings have climbed from the rock-bottom levels of April, but a recent survey by airline trade group IATA found that more than half of all Americans prefer not to fly if they can avoid it.
American and United have their reasons, of course, chiefly financial. Even after the recent uptick, demand remains down 75 percent compared with a year ago. Bleeding about $40 million in cash per day, carriers need to save money wherever they can. For some, that means maximizing the customer payload on every flight.
Their approach comes with a potentially devastating downside. One COVID outbreak traced to a jam-packed flight could snuff out the nascent recovery, particularly for the carrier in question. Long-term damage from such an incident could far outweigh the financial pain COVID-19 is inflicting on carriers.
Despite the unprecedented cash squeeze, carriers enjoy strong support from the federal government and private capital markets. The feds have funneled billions to airlines, in return for stock that all but ensures the government won't let a carrier go under. On top of that, Wall Street has shown remarkable confidence that airlines will weather the downturn. United last week struck a deal to borrow $6.8 billion against its frequent-flyer program, after announcing a $1 billion stock offering earlier this month. American, for its part, is raising $3.5 billion in a mix of equity and debt.
With access to so much capital, airlines can afford a more-cautious approach to seating capacity. That's how Delta and Southwest have sized up the situation. They're keeping capacity constraints in place through the end of September. Yet American has dropped a limitation that reduced its seating capacity by only 15 percent.
United and American are treating the crisis like a short-term financial problem, when in fact the real challenge is restoring customer confidence in flying over the long term. They should be willing to forgo some short-term revenue in order to ease customers' anxieties.
Passengers already have voiced alarm over crowding on planes and airlines' failure to enforce mask-wearing requirements. Carriers that go the extra mile in addressing their concerns will gain an advantage over those that rush to fill cabins.
Given a choice, flyers will be more comfortable flying Delta or Southwest. They'll have more confidence in those carriers' commitment to customer safety. That's always a critical concern for airline passengers, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and two highly publicized crashes of the Boeing 737 Max jet used by so many carriers. People have never been more attuned to the safety risks of flying.
And with infections climbing in more than half the states, American and United couldn't have picked a worse time to court more risk. New hot spots include American's AG亚洲国际游戏home base of Texas, and California, where United has hubs.
The carriers hope to assuage worries with some new safety procedures. They're promising to enforce the mask requirement and adopting enhanced cleaning protocols. They're also requiring passengers to certify that they haven't experienced coronavirus symptoms or encountered infected people, relying on ticket buyers to respond honestly.
In addition, carriers point to sophisticated onboard ventilation systems, which reduce transmission risk by whisking away airborne particles that might contain the virus. Medical experts agree the risk of infection on an airplane is relatively low, but warn the danger rises as more passengers board. American's decision to fill planes drew public criticism from National Institutes of Health infectious disease chief Dr. Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield.
American and United also notify passengers in advance when flights are fully booked, allowing them to rebook on a less-crowded flight.
"American is committed to the safety and well-being of its customers and team members," the company says in an emailed statement. "American has implemented multiple layers of protection for customers which include clean airports and airplanes, healthy team members, and requirements for customers—and those who service them—to wear face coverings."
United spokesman Charles Hobart says the carrier is "committed to delivering a new level of cleanliness and putting the health and safety of our customers and employees at the center of everything that we do." He dismisses the blocking of middle seats as "a public relations strategy—not a safety strategy, because sitting in the aisle seat doesn’t adequately distance you from the person in the window or across the aisle."
No safety steps are guaranteed to prevent infection. But each one adds a bit more protection and gives passengers a bit more confidence.