Will U.S. Airlines Keep Their Distance From Covid-19?

Will U.S. Airlines Keep Their Distance From Covid-19?
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In late April, American Airlines Flight 2669 took off nearly full from Miami for LaGuardia with only half the passengers wearing masks.   An alarmed passenger described the experience on social media, which yielded stories in print and on television.   Shortly thereafter, more such stories appeared: JFK to Charlotte on American Airlines, Fort Myers to Pittsburgh on Southwest, and West Palm Beach to Islip on Southwest.  Many a would-be air traveler must have shuddered at such news, and been further convinced to stay off airplanes for the foreseeable future.  

Perhaps it was no coincidence that most US airlines have since announced that, starting in early May, all passengers have to wear face masks while in flight.    That is better than nothing, but it leaves unchanged a huge shortcoming in current arrangements: As of now, the airlines offer only an enormously-adulterated version of social distancing.  

Social-distancing guidelines specify that people should stay six feet apart.  But at most the airlines are blocking off the middle seat among three.   And the middle seat is only 17 inches wide.    Thus, the passenger could wind up seated just over two feet from a stranger who carries the virus.  For that matter, people in adjacent aisle seats are far less than six feet apart.

Actually, even the middle-seat rule is often something of a mirage.  American Airlines inexplicably blocks off only half the middle seats, and will fill those seats when passenger loads so require.    United Airlines too views the middle-seat rule as aspirational rather than binding.  Some other airlines are quite unclear about what they do.

But if all passengers are wearing masks, why should it matter if they are close together?  Exact statistics are hard to come by, but the expert consensus is that the masks offer marginal protection to a healthy passenger and partially block an infected passenger from spreading disease.    Virtually all experts believe that masks are less effective than social distancing.

Indeed, recent developments  make clear that no one considers the masks a panacea. General Motors requires masks in its newly-reopened plants, but also imposes six-foot social distancing and other measures.  Those planning how offices can reopen assume mask-usage, but they would also impose a ban on communal areas, further separation of desks, and curtailed elevator use.  At California beaches and New York funerals, police who have broken up crowds treated face masks as irrelevant.

What would real-life social distancing look like on an airplane?    In an Embraer 175 jet with an A-B and C-D-E seat configuration, a passenger in seat 16A should be alone (unless traveling with someone who would sit in seat 16B).  No passengers would sit in A-B seats in rows 15 or 17, while the D or E seat could be occupied in each of the odd-numbered rows.  The 16A passenger would be a bit less than six feet from a traveler in seat 18A but, given two seatbacks separating the two rows, the rule could be viewed as effectively in force.

Under this arrangement, only about 25% of the seats would be available to  passengers.  That obviously sounds low, but that level of occupancy is quite common in this pandemic: as business is reopening in Texas, for example, restaurants, theaters, malls, and museums are restricted to 25% capacity.  US flights are now on average less than 15% full, so implementing real social-distancing would rarely pose a problem.

But what of the minority of flights where demand exceeds 25% of seats, perhaps considerably?   Here the airlines could offer back-up flights rather than set the policy aside.    For several reasons, the marginal cost of adding such flights is exceptionally low.  Right now, after all, the airlines must pay their full workforces as a condition of government grants, while the price of fuel is rock-bottom and there are lots of idle aircraft.   

As new Covid-19 cases and deaths get rarer, the rule could progressively be loosened  (e.g., as a first step, one A-B seat could be filled in each row rather than every other row).   An emergency measure today is not a commitment that must last for years.

US airlines have been astoundingly safe: before the pandemic, the statistics meant that a youth at a US airport would have been far more likely to win a Nobel Prize in Physics than to perish on her forthcoming flight.   But it is not certain that these statistics apply today.   The bitter truth isthat we can expect more passenger deaths from covid-19 if the airlines persist in a deeply diluted version of social distancing rather than the real thing.   To airlines that are suffering so greatly, cordoning off most of their seats would be deeply painful.  But to be true to their highest values, they should accept the torment and literally go the distance.

Arnold Barnett is the George Eastman Professor of Management Science/Professor of Statistics, MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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