Jeff Merkley flew on American Airlines last week, and he wasn't happy with how his flight went—specifically, on how crowded it was in the midst of the pandemic. "How many Americans will die bc you fill middle seats, w/ your customers shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour," the Democratic senator from Oregon asked the airline in a Thursday tweet, per the Hill. "This is incredibly irresponsible. ... No way you aren't facilitating spread of COVID infections." After sleeping on it, Merkley posted a follow-up tweet: "A lot of folks reacted to my tweet yesterday about the irresponsible sale of middle seats on planes saying, 'Wouldn't it be nice if someone in the Senate did something about it?' They're right." Merkley now says he'll be introducing a bill to ban ticket sales for middle seats until the pandemic is over in the US. Sen. Bernie Sanders raised a similar red flag last week on social distancing on planes.
American didn't reply directly to Merkley, but it did respond to a Twitter user who retweeted the senator's tweet. "We've implemented many layers of protection including enhanced cleaning and requiring face coverings," the airline posted, linking to info on its "clean commitment." While Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest say they won't fill planes to capacity for now, United isn't sure keeping the middle seats empty does much good alone. "That's a PR strategy ... not a safety strategy," a United spokesman said Wednesday, per CNN. Ben Baldanza agrees, writing at Forbes that Merkley's proposal would be "law by emotion, not by data." Last week, however, CDC Director Robert Redfield expressed "substantial disappointment" with American's choice to stop limiting seat capacity, noting that decision "is under critical review right now by us at CDC" and that "we don't think it's the right message." (Read more American Airlines stories.)