The Trump administration is urging airlines to leave some airplane seats empty to help protect travelers and crew members from the coronavirus but it is stopping short of requiring airlines to keep seats open to create physical distancing on flights.
The federal COVID-19 guidelines also encourage all passengers to wear face coverings or masks but again, the administration will not mandate it.
And that's a problem, according to some consumer groups, public health officials, airline employee unions and members of Congress, who say there needs to be enforceable federal rules that are consistent across the air travel industry to minimize the risk for transmission of the virus.
As air travel demand begins to slowly recover from the pandemic, the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Health and Human Services jointly issued guidelines for the air travel industry Thursday in a report called the Runway to Recovery.
It encourages airlines and airports to promote social distancing, enhance disinfection and cleaning procedures, create barriers such as plastic shields at counters, conduct health assessments of passengers and employees and collect passenger information for possible contact tracing; all are measures most airlines and airports have already implemented, as they follow recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention months ago.
A Transportation Department press release says, "The guidance will enhance public health risk reduction to support an increase in travel volume while ensuring that aviation safety and security are not compromised."
"This document provides clear guidance to airlines and airports to protect the traveling public, and we encourage people to pay attention to it," added Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a statement.
But traveler and consumer advocacy groups say the guidelines are inadequate.
"Americans are rightfully concerned that they may be putting their health and safety at risk if they choose to fly during a global pandemic," said William McGee, aviation advisor for Consumer Reports. "The DOT shouldn't leave it up to the airlines and airports to decide which COVID-19 safety precautions they will follow to keep passengers safe."
Consumer groups, airline employee unions and some members of Congress say the Trump administration needs to create mandatory public health standards to ensure passengers are protected when they travel during the pandemic.
"There's very few, I think, worse environments to be in than trapped in a tube that's crammed full of people who are rubbing shoulders with recirculated air for five or six hours while flying across the country," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation Committee, who says the administration "should require masks under the penalty of federal law on airplanes."
While many airlines are requiring passengers masks or face coverings, enforcement has been inconsistent. United, Delta and a few others say they have removed some passengers from planes and prohibited others from boarding for not wearing masks, but such enforcement actions have only been taken recently after a rising number of complaints from other passengers.
And flight attendants are somewhat frustrated because they are the ones who often must police the mask wearing and social distancing requirements.
"Without a federal mandate and a coordinated effort to address these issues, we're left to the airlines putting in place policies that are inconsistent, leave people confused and leave us to deal with the consequences on the front lines," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
The new federal guidance encouraging airlines to leave some seats open comes in a week in which American Airlines joined rival United and discount carrier Spirit in saying they'll fill every seat on every plane if there is enough demand.
It's a move that drew sharp criticism from two of the nation's top public health officials in a Senate committee hearing on the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday.
"I think it sends the wrong message," said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Obviously that is something that is of concern. I'm not sure what went into that decision making," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a member of the White House coronavirus task force told senators. "I think in the confines of an airplane that (lack of physical distancing) becomes even more problematic."
Other airlines, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue say they will continue to temporarily block out middle seats or keep planes no more than two-thirds full in order to create more space between passengers.
But officials at United and American defend their decisions to fully book flights saying social distancing is impossible on a plane. Even if the middle seats are empty, passengers are less than three feet apart, and there is even less distance between rows in economy seating.
"You can't employ distancing on an airplane like you can in a grocery store line," said Nick Calio, president of the industry group Airlines for America in a conference call with reporters this week. He contends other safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning of airplane cabins, physical distancing when boarding and deplaning, and wearing face coverings will minimize the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.
"We don't fly people if we feel it's not safe to fly them," Calio said.
Nonetheless, many people are still reluctant to return to flying.
In regard to where to travel safely and how to get there this summer, "things are still incredibly uncertain and confusing," says Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy website, who adds, "Air travel is definitely one of the more complicated ways of traveling."
To minimize potential risk, she suggests travelers consider short haul flights rather than long haul flights, airlines that have more stringent airplane cleaning regimens, and airlines that are still blocking out middle seats or restricting capacity in other ways.
Some airline pilots would like to see more government help in that regard. The Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, wants the next federal coronavirus relief package to include funding to "purchase enough seats on each flight to eliminate the need for any passenger to sit next to a stranger."
APA President Capt. Eric Ferguson says under that sort of "uniform social distancing, passengers would be encouraged to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure the preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and associated jobs."