As Coronavirus Cases Rise, American Airlines Is Booking to Capacity Again

Courtney Linder
Photo credit: ELEONORE SENS - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • On July 1, American Airlines will resume booking flights to capacity.
  • The move comes amid a recent spike in COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases.
  • American will join United Airlines, which says it never put a cap on capacity or blocked middle seats, per a company spokesperson.

Effective Wednesday, American Airlines will book its flights to full capacity, despite a recent upward trend in COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases.

"As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1. American will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost," the company said toward the end of a June 26 statement.

If space becomes available once boarding is complete, customers may move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability, or they can change their booking to another date, American says.

This falls in line with United Airlines, which never capped capacity or blocked middle seats, a company spokesperson told ABC News. And back in early May, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly suggested it was "safe to fly" again on CBS’s Face the Nation at the time, although his motives seemed to be purely financial.

It's true that the airline industry has financially suffered since the start of the pandemic. In fact, $25 billion of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act went straight to these passenger air carriers: Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United, SkyWest, and Southwest.

American said its bookings plummeted by about 95 percent at the lowest point in April, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Since then, the airliner said it has limited bookings to 85 percent capacity for each plane—until now.

Meanwhile, other airlines like Delta, Alaksa, and Spirit are banishing the middle seat until further notice to aid in social distancing efforts—and designers and engineers are coming up with some interesting concepts to make it happen. Even then, your safety is hardly guaranteed—and we did the math for a typical Southwest passenger plane to prove it.

Photo credit: Caroline Delbert

Southwest mostly flies Boeing 737-700s, which have a cabin width of just 11.6 feet. Each aisle has six seats, which means each seat has about 20 inches of total width, including both the seat and armrests. The entire fuselage is 110.25 feet long, and just two-thirds of that length is reserved for seats. There are 24 aisles, plus a 25th "aisle" that serves as exit row space. So each row has about 32 inches of combined seat length and legroom.

Using that information, we diagrammed a 737-700 interior and marked off seats that are just barely 6 feet apart; we had to include the empty aisle as permanently empty space in order for anyone to be able to sit on the plane. Even if only the window seats were occupied, someone walking down the aisle is just 3.5 feet from those passengers. That’s on the very lowest end of how far a sneeze can travel.

Even though American mostly flies Boeing 737-800 planes, the same general rules still apply: eliminating middle seats means people are still too close. Now imagine what it would be like if you're on a flight at full capacity.


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