When she got on an airplane last Monday, Hilary Macatangay wasn’t planning to gamble with her health. Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the design and marketing consultant showed up at the airport in El Paso wearing swim goggles and two masks layered over one another, ready to board the first of her two American Airlines flights home to Michigan.
To her dismay, as she made her way back to her seat in the 20th row, she realized it would be virtually impossible to maintain social distancing on the plane: Passengers filled every row including the middle seats; as far as she could see, only one place appeared to be unoccupied.
American Airlines had offered travelers up to $250 to switch to a different flight that “has more space” ahead of departure, but Macatangay had an appointment she couldn’t miss.
“I was mildly shocked,” she says. “We were sardines.”
American Airlines announced last week it would begin booking flights to 100% capacity, beginning Wednesday, July 1, up from the 85% limit the air carrier had instituted during the global health crisis to reduce the risk of the virus spreading in flight. But many passengers who’ve flown in recent weeks report that their planes seemed just as full as usual, and even overbooked: In several cases, American Airlines has paid passengers to take a later flight.
A spokesperson for the airline tells Fortune that since April, “we can assure you that no flight departed with more than 85% [of seats] full,” a policy that remains in place through Tuesday. Macatangay’s flights, the spokesperson says, took off at 80% capacity, with 10 to 15 available seats on each leg.
Yet even if the planes had empty space when they took off, they may have started off closer to full.
Nena Stanley, an Oklahoma-based primary care doctor, had already boarded her American Airlines flight from Dallas to Ontario, Calif. on Friday and was sitting in the back of the “packed” jet when she heard an announcement over the loudspeaker: They were two passengers over capacity, and needed two volunteers to take a different flight. After about 15 minutes with no takers, the airline seemed to sweeten the deal: It would pay $750 in vouchers to those willing. Two people got off the plane.
Other travelers report receiving similar offers. Kass McQuillen, a former contestant on CBS reality series “Survivor,” wrote on Twitter that she’d flown on four “overbooked” American Airlines flights in the past two weeks and “was offered vouchers worth more than my ticket to give up my seat.”
The American Airlines spokesperson says “no flight was oversold or sold out” during the pandemic, but that if it were over the 85% capacity limit “it would solicit for volunteers in advance.”
Still, with the airline selling tickets beyond that restricted threshold, it may encounter a problem if every passenger shows up wanting to fly. And even if the planes didn’t take off with a full load, if more than 85% of seats were filled upon boarding, it’s unclear whether the restrictions made a difference in preventing the spread of COVID-19 germs at all.
What’s more, Dr. Stanley notes that back two rows on her flight were left empty while the rest of the plane was full—raising the question of whether the airline’s capacity limits created additional space for social distancing at all, if passengers in the remaining rows were seated shoulder to shoulder.
Better than expected demand for air travel has helped boost American Airlines stock in recent weeks, with the company announcing plans to add more flights to its schedule. American Airlines shares have risen nearly 80% since the end of March.
The appetite from travelers is likely behind the airline’s decision to do away with social distancing measures altogether beginning this week.
At the same time, even flyers willing to accept the health risks that come with a crowded flight may be wary of boarding a plane that’s completely full. The airline says it will continue warning passengers when they are booked on very full flights and allowing them to move to a less crowded one when available.
Joshua Harris, a New York-based screenwriter who had been quarantining in Miami for the last few months, flew to Los Angeles on June 11 to visit his family. Sitting in the middle seat in the back of the plane, with people on either side and in every seat behind and in front of him, he recalls the tense moment when he had to sneeze.
“You could sense the eyes on you—as if we were carrying the plague,” says Harris, who was wearing an N-95 mask. “It was one of the worst flights I’ve ever been on.”
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