Ban on middle seats should be left up to airlines, says US transportation secretary

By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The airline industry has taken a massive hit from the coronavirus pandemic — a 96% drop in passenger volume at the height of the crisis. 

The number of airplanes in the sky has decreased by about 70% too, so U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao says reopening the economy is essential.

“And we need to do it safely in a phased fashion,” she told anchor Ian Bush during KYW Newsradio’s Reporters’ Roundup.

Some airlines have pledged not to sell middle seats to alleviate passengers’ fears of contracting the coronavirus. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley from Oregon has said he plans to introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats.

“I support anything that supports safety,” said Chao, adding it’s up to the airlines to make those decisions. 

“To the extent that they can, (airlines are) trying very hard to keep that middle seat open, but sometimes they just don't have enough of the airplanes flying for all of them to do so.”

Almost all airlines require face coverings too, though it is not a mandate from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We regulate the safety of the aircraft,” Chao explained, “not the plane itself. As for the internal cabin, we don't really do that. We do not really have the authority to do that, but I do recommend that when people travel, they observe the CDC guidelines.”

That also includes practicing social distancing, washing hands, and being cognizant of one’s surroundings.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced more than $273 million in grants for 41 states, including Pennsylvania, through the Federal Aviation Administration, which will support airport safety and critical infrastructure repairs. About $31 million of that total is from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

Northeast Philadelphia Airport — often used for private business travel, cargo, and small aircrafts — will receive more than $9 million in aid, which will go toward reconstructing a runway and runway lighting.

Philadelphia International Airport received $116 million from the CARES Act in March in order to continue paying workers during the pandemic, and ramp up cleaning protocols. 

“We are very, very concerned, obviously, and trying to do everything we can to help these airports because the air traffic will come back,” Chao said. “It's still pretty low. It's going to come back, and as the economy comes back, we're going to see more air travel, and we've got to keep these airports open, operational and safe.”