Boarding a flight at Miami International Airport was a breeze March through June, with waiting times at security checkpoints as low as two minutes, mostly empty hallways and half a dozen rows of free seating at many terminals.
But that’s about to change, as American Airlines — the airport’s largest carrier — pushes to satisfy flight demand and fill up the airport.
American Airlines is set to increase its flight schedule by 10 percent in July by reversing its previous policy of keeping half of all economy middle seats empty for social distancing purposes.
Juan Carlos Liscano, the vice president of American Airlines’ hub operations in Miami, said the airline is confident that safety measures such as pre-flight COVID questionnaires, contactless check-ins, mandatory face masks, and deep cleans and hospital-standard ventilation in aircraft cabins could make up for the increased capacity on planes.
“One of the things that allows us to feel comfortable with that is the very layered approach that we are taking on for providing confidence for both our traveling customers and our team members,” Liscano said on Tuesday.
However, public health experts have criticized the airline’s decision as being unsafe.
“I’m not sure what went into that decision making,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, told a Senate panel on Tuesday, according to the AP.
“I can say this is under critical review by us at CDC. We don’t think it’s the right message,” added Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the United States surpassed 2.6 million COVID-positive cases Tuesday.
In Florida alone, Wednesday’s 6,563 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases was the fourth highest single-day total reported in the state since the pandemic began in March. Florida now has 158,997 confirmed cases and 3,550 deaths.
American Airlines would fly 55 percent of last year’s domestic schedule, up from 45 percent last month. The schedule for international flights is expected to stay at a record low of 20 percent compared with last year, as countries hesitate to open borders to American tourists due to the more than 2.6 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, the world’s highest number.
Liscano said that estimate for the international schedule might increase by up to 10 percent if the European Union — which delayed reopening borders to Americans by another two weeks on Tuesday — decides to “come back online.”
Miami International Airport Director Lester Sola supported American Airlines in its decision. He said he was pleased that the airline would continue to contribute to the recovery of the local economy, while cooperating with airport administration to keep customers safe.
“I am glad that American Airlines can make this positive economic impact on jobs in the area,” said Sola.
American is MIA’s biggest tenant, contributing more than $320 million in revenues for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2019, or approximately 40 percent of MIA’s $820.6 million in revenues in 2019, according to Miami International’s 2019 financial report.
That year, American Airlines was also the third largest employer in Miami-Dade County, contributing more than $21.8 billion annually to South Florida’s economy, according to the airline.
Sola said that in addition to American Airlines’ efforts, the airport “has taken aggressive measures” to fight the spread of the virus, such as doubling janitorial staff, setting up “Health Tip” signs near seating areas and disinfecting touch points across its 3,200 acres several times per day.
However, some staff and customers worry that won’t be enough to keep them safe.
“I can’t imagine a worse time to tell passengers that the airplanes they may be on will be completely full,” the spokesman for the pilots’ union at American, Dennis Tajer, told AP.
“It just makes me nervous. My flight from Miami to Dallas is full and AA keeps asking for me to change flights but my schedule doesn’t allow (that),” said Briley Dewayne Jones, 22, from Columbia, S.C., who flew through Miami International while heading to his mother’s wedding in Dallas where he met his immunocompromised grandparents.
Jones told the Herald that his American Airlines flight into Miami was mostly empty, but boarding onto his second flight from Miami to Dallas made him anxious.
The flight was nearly full, with just one to two empty seats, according to Jones. After landing, passengers were breathing onto each other in a long crowded line in the center aisle for several minutes, he added.
It just makes me nervous. My flight from Miami to Dallas is full and AA keeps asking for me to change flights but my schedule doesn’t allow. Both my grandparents are in their late 70’s. My grandmother has diabetes.
— Briley Dewayne Jones (@bdewaynejones) June 23, 2020
Others on Twitter pointed out that some flights have been at full capacity since April.
“They haven’t been blocking middle seats for months,” said one user who flew American Airlines in April on a full plane. “I vowed to never take @AmericanAir again.”
They haven’t been blocking middle seats for months. My flight in April from Miami, the entire plane was full. All they did was offer a flight a different day! Me and others didn’t live in Miami, so how would that help us! I vowed to never take @AmericanAir again.
— Andy (@Brady5007) June 27, 2020
Twitter users continued posting pictures of American Airlines planes at full capacity through May. One user flying in from Dallas said he also felt unsafe during the boarding process where social distancing measures were not being enforced.
Liscano and Sola said that ultimately it comes down to individuals cooperating with airport and airline staff.
“I will tell you that… the airport is at the safest point possible considering the circumstances,” said Sola. “We’ve done our part and now we are asking for the flying public to take those measures into their own hands and make their decisions.”
Sola added that the airport is ready to handle its full capacity of over 120,000 passengers when customers feel confident enough to come back.
On Tuesday, Miami International welcomed between 26,000 and 28,000 customers, eight times higher than its lowest point of 3,400 in March.
“If customers are confident in traveling and the demand is there, we will continue to bring back the schedule commensurate with that,” said Liscano.
American Airlines said in a statement that it will notify customers who book flights at full capacity and give them a chance to reschedule with no added fees.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn against boarding on crowded flights where passengers cannot social distance and may have to sit next to infected individuals for hours.
“(S)taying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick,” according to CDC guidelines updated June 28.
If you are planning on traveling, the CDC recommends to:
Bring enough of your medicine to last you for the entire trip.
Pack enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) and keep it within easy reach.
Bring a cloth face covering to wear in public places.
Prepare food and water for your trip. Pack non-perishable food in case restaurants and stores are closed.
Take steps to protect yourself from COVID-19 when booking accommodations or planning an overnight stay.
If you are considering cleaning your travel lodgings, see CDC’s guidance on how to clean and disinfect.