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A United Airlines executive fires back at critics, dismissing social distancing on planes as 'a PR strategy,' not a safety precaution

Business Insider logo Business Insider 7/1/2020 (David Slotnick)
a large airplane at an airport: A United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. David McNew/Getty Images © David McNew/Getty Images A United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. David McNew/Getty Images

A United Airlines executive fired back at critics on Wednesday, arguing that there was no practical need for social distancing on flights.

"Look, when it comes to blocking middle seats, that's a PR strategy," chief communications officer Josh Earnest said. "That's not a safety strategy."

Earnest, who joined United in 2018 after serving as White House press secretary under President Obama, said that other safety measures had more of an impact.

"When you're onboard the aircraft, if you're sitting in the aisle and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle from you is within six feet of you," he said. "The person at the window is within six feet of you. The people in the row in front of you are within six feet of you, the people in the row behind you are within six feet of you."

"If you want to stay safe on the airplane, we need to wear a mask, we need to have good air filtration, the airplane needs to be thoroughly cleaned, and we need to make sure that every stage of your journey where we can socially distance, that we're doing that," he added. "Those are all the steps that scientists have recommended that we take."

As travel demand has slowly but steadily increased in recent weeks, questions about the safety of packed airplanes have grown.

Video: Boeing begins crucial test flights for 737 MAX (Reuters)

American Airlines said last week that it would stop blocking middle seats and limiting capacity on its planes, drawing sharp criticism from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes for Helath, CDC chief Dr. Robert Redfield, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Delta, however, said that it will continue to block middle seats and limit capacity on its planes to about 60% through at least September. Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska have also said they will continue to limit capacity in some form.

United has not blocked the seats or put any limits on capacity during the pandemic.

"Obviously, that's something that is of concern," Dr. Fauci said of full flights. "Avoiding crowds, staying distant, and when in a situation like that, wear a mask — I think in the confines of an airplane, that becomes even more problematic."

Earnest's statements came during a media briefing as United announced the addition of 25,000 flights to its schedule for August, in response to the increasing domestic travel demand.

Airlines and industry representatives, including the International Air Transport Association, have argued that social distancing on flights is not necessary due to airflow patterns on planes, High Efficiency Particulate Air filters that prevent microbes in the air from recirculating, other cleaning measures, and the use of masks.

However, as airlines try to accelerate the recovery of travel demand, some airlines are likely to use blocked seats, branded cleaning procedures, and more as a brand differentiator, according to Shashank Nigam, CEO of aviation strategy and marketing firm SimpliFlying.

Others may determine that they will be more successful selling those blocked seats instead of flying with them empty.

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