Jun 8, 2020 - Economy

Lack of social distancing rules makes American Airlines an outlier

Passangers on an American Airlines flight in May. Photo: Eleonore Sens/AFP via Getty Images

American Airlines is looking to pack more passengers onto flights in the coming months and unlike many peers has not instituted a seating cap to enforce social distancing.

Why it matters: That drive for more ticket sales at the possible expense of customer safety may be what's helping its stock outperform other major airlines that have put policies in place.

By the numbers: Over the past month American's stock has risen by nearly 90%, underpinned by a 41% gain on Thursday. Its stock price has nearly doubled since May 29.

  • Other airlines also have seen sizable gains but fall short of American's rise, with United, JetBlue, Southwest and Delta up 68%, 59%, 39% and 51%, respectively, since May 4.

What they're saying: "Our goal is to leave 50% of Main Cabin middle seats open, when possible, creating more space for customers," American said in response to my tweet pointing out that I had — again — been put on what appeared to be a completely full flight.

  • American followed up in an email to say that my flight had 44 open seats, suggesting — again — that I believe their media relations team and not my lying eyes.

The state of play: The "when possible" policy sets American apart from other major airlines, which have instituted in-writing restrictions on flight capacity.

  • United has a policy to allow passengers to choose to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit when flights are 70% full.
  • Delta assures that its planes will fly no more than 60% full in its main cabin.
  • JetBlue has a rule to leave middle seats open, unless families are traveling together.
  • Southwest has 20% reduction in available seat miles.

The big picture: The decision is resulting in short-term gain, but could leave the airline open to long-term pain in the form of lawsuits, an attorney specializing in negligence and liability told Axios last month.

Flashback: CNBC reported on May 27 that "American Airlines has started alerting travelers about crowded planes before their trips and allowing them to switch to other flights."

  • However, no announcement of that program could be found on American's website and customer service representatives tell Axios that no such policy exists.

What they're not saying: An American Airlines spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the policy's existence.

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