Just last month, people were posting photos and stories on social media of virtually empty flights, relishing in receiving personalized service and not having to worry about social distancing.

Now, as summer travel season starts, some travelers are complaining about the opposite: flying on planes that are surprisingly full. They are frustrated that airlines aren’t doing more to space people out or limit the number of passengers on planes.

Even though most flights are far from full, some continue to fly at or near capacity. Take the United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco that Ethan Weiss, a doctor from California, wrote about on Twitter in a series of messages that were widely shared this month.

“This is the last time I’ll be flying again for a very long time,” he wrote, after posting a photograph of a nearly full plane cabin.

Last weekend, Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents a stretch of California’s coast north of San Francisco, wrote about a similar experience on his way back to Washington.

What Mr. Huffman and Dr. Weiss experienced was unusual, but not unique. Here’s why.

They were, and they are. Usually.

The vast majority of flights in the United States — about three out of four — are less than half full, according to Airlines for America, an industry organization. And only about one in 12 flights is more than 70 percent full, though that figure may grow as more travelers start to fly and airlines better align their schedules with demand.

Early in the pandemic, there was a glut of empty flights as airlines struggled to keep up with people canceling or skipping flights. Schedules are largely set weeks in advance, and airlines didn’t know how many passengers would board their planes.

Over time, however, airlines have gotten a better handle on demand and slashed their schedules. United, for example, cut flights in May by about 90 percent. Delta Air Lines has cut 85 percent of its flights over the three months ending in June.

“That means that people who are on four individual flights are now on one — the single flight that remains,” said Robert Mann, an industry analyst and consultant.

That depends on the airline — and the fine print.

As Dr. Weiss pointed out, United told customers in an email that it was “automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board,” but the airline has since clarified its policy. Customers may not be able to select a middle seat at purchase, but United can still assign them one. The company said it could not guarantee empty seats but would let passengers rebook if their flights were more than 70 percent full.

By comparison, Delta has promised to cap seating at 50 percent of its capacity in first class and 60 percent elsewhere. American Airlines has said it will block half of all middle seats on its planes. Southwest Airlines, which does not assign seats, has resisted making such pronouncements, but has said it will temporarily reduce how many passengers it books on every flight.

It’s easy to limit capacity when demand is very low, but airlines can’t afford to do so forever.

The industry tends to operate on slim profit margins. In North America, an airline breaks even only on flights that are at least 75 percent full, on average, according to the International Air Transport Association.

To cover the cost of social-distancing measures, those North American airlines would have to raise average fares by 43 percent, to $289 from $202 last year, according to the association.

“Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs,” Alexandre de Juniac, the association’s chief executive, said this month. “If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end.”

Still, airlines are facing growing pressure to do something about packed flights as they start to see the beginnings of a tepid and choppy recovery.

This month, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrats on the congressional transportation committees, separately called on the Trump administration and airlines to limit capacity on flights.

“As air travelers gradually return, they must feel confident that they will be safe from the coronavirus,” Ms. Cantwell wrote in a letter on Monday urging the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to formalize guidelines for airlines.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


While airlines are not yet uniformly keeping passengers six feet apart, they have been trying to put travelers at ease by requiring masks, frequently disinfecting planes and boarding planes back to front to limit interactions among passengers.

In an effort to show customers that it’s taking the pandemic seriously, United said this week that it was teaming up with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic: Clorox will consult on the airline’s disinfection practices and provide amenities to travelers at some locations, while the Cleveland Clinic will offer advice and keep the airline updated on the latest best practices.

Airlines are also adding sneeze guards and kiosks that can be operated without being touched. They are also scrapping meal service.

On any given day, the Transportation Security Administration is screening between only 8 percent and 10 percent of the approximately 2.5 million people it processed at airport checkpoints a year ago. But while most Americans are staying home, tens of thousands still get on planes every day — and that number appears to be rising.

Many travelers are visiting loved ones who are old or ill, or are traveling to be closer to family after months in isolation. There are also medical professionals like Dr. Weiss, who was part of a group of nurses and doctors who had gone to New York City to help hospitals struggling with an influx of virus cases. Others are flying for work.

That was the case for David Chou, a health care executive from Kansas City, Mo., who recently took his first flight in months, to Houston, where he had just accepted a new job. Mr. Chou was fortunate that only about a dozen passengers were on the flight. But he was disappointed to find that some weren’t wearing masks. It wasn’t a major problem, but it did make him rethink whether he would fly again.

“If volume picks up and people are not practicing social distancing or even wearing masks, I would be hesitant on taking additional flights,” he said.

With airlines seeing early signs of a recovery, people like him may soon have to reckon with whether it’s worth getting on a plane at all.

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