May 28, 2020 - Economy

Airlines announce new coronavirus policies to adhere to social distancing

Travelers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in March. Photo: Aizuddin Saad/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As air travel increases, many airlines are now offering options for travelers worried about social distancing on packed flights.

The state of play: After previously packing customers onto full flights despite assurances that planes would be sold only to 50% capacity, American Airlines announced Wednesday it will alert travelers about crowded planes before their trips and allow them to switch to other flights.

  • The announcement follows similar measures from United, which alerts customers when flights are 70% full.
  • Delta said it plans to add 100 flights in June so its planes fly no more than 60% full.
  • JetBlue is leaving middle seats open unless families are traveling together on its Airbus planes through July 6.
  • Southwest said it will leave middle seats open on Boeing 737 planes through the end of July.

Why it matters: These are the strongest measures yet put in writing by airlines to help stop the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic started.

  • Many airlines felt pressure from social media posts showing packed flights and legislators have weighed in seeking official social distancing mandates on planes.
  • Airlines also are trying to cope with massive revenue losses — American plans to reduce its management and support staff by about 30%.
Data: FactSet; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The intrigue: Airlines have been highly favored by stock traders over the past two weeks, as more begin to anticipate a quick rebound in consumer demand for air travel as cities around the U.S. reopen.

  • JETS, the U.S. global airline ETF, has delivered about four times the S&P 500's return over the past two weeks, though it remains well below year-to-date returns.
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