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Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to ban sale of middle seats on airplanes during coronavirus pandemic

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/4/2020 Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator said Friday he would introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats on airplanes for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic after taking a crowded flight.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., posted a picture of himself on an American Airlines flight on Thursday, calling it "incredibly irresponsible" for so many people to be sitting in close proximity.     

"This is incredibly irresponsible," he wrote. "People eat & drink on planes & must take off masks to do so. No way you aren’t facilitating spread of COVID infections."

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The day after, he said he would take action. 

"I will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through this pandemic," he posted. "And I’ll work with colleagues to include it in a package of airline accountability reforms they are crafting."

American Airlines did not appear to respond to Merkley's accusation, but responded to several Twitter users who had posted about Merkley's criticism, writing, "We’ve implemented many layers of protection including enhanced cleaning and requiring face coverings."  

American Airlines ended its practice of blocking off seats to promote social distancing on flights on Wednesday and started booking planes to capacity again. Other airlines, including United Airlines and Spirit, also said they would phase out the practice. Frontier Airlines said it would charge passengers for an empty middle seat next to them, before backing away from the plan after it was accused of exploiting consumers' fears for profit. 

Southwest and Delta have committed to leaving middle seats open through Sept. 30. 

More: Your next American flight might be full as airline will no longer block seats in name of social distancing

More: Freaked out about full flights during a pandemic? These airlines are still blocking seats – for now

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told senators at a hearing Tuesday "there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines" after they announced they were ending the blocking off of seats. 

“We don’t think it’s the right message," Redfield said, in response to questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., adding that the CDC was reviewing the policy. 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said he hoped there "would be something to mitigate against that." Coronavirus spread in a confined space like an airplane could become "even more problematic," he said. 

More: CDC chief blasts American Airlines for not blocking seats: 'We don't think it's the right message'

After Fauci and Redfield answered his question, Sanders slammed airlines that were ending their practice of blocking middle seats for "endangering the lives of the American people."  

"I think you and I just hope very much that the CDC or the appropriate agency basically tells these companies that that is unacceptable behavior," Sanders said. "They're endangering the lives of the American people.

Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to ban sale of middle seats on airplanes during coronavirus pandemic


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