Sen. Jeff Merkley wants to ban sale of middle seats on airplanes during coronavirus pandemic

WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator said Friday he would introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats on airplanes for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic after taking a crowded flight.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., posted a picture of himself on an American Airlines flight on Thursday, calling it “incredibly irresponsible” for so many people to be sitting in close proximity.     

“This is incredibly irresponsible,” he wrote. “People eat & drink on planes & must take off masks to do so. No way you aren’t facilitating spread of COVID infections.”

The day after, he said he would take action. 

“I will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats through this pandemic,” he posted. “And I’ll work with colleagues to include it in a package of airline accountability reforms they are crafting.”

American Airlines did not appear to respond to Merkley’s accusation, but responded to several Twitter users who had posted about Merkley’s criticism, writing, “We’ve implemented many layers of protection including enhanced cleaning and requiring face coverings.”  

American Airlines ended its practice of blocking off seats to promote social distancing on flights on Wednesday and started booking planes to capacity again. Other airlines, including United Airlines and Spirit, also said they would phase out the practice. Frontier Airlines said it would charge passengers for an empty middle seat next to them, before backing away from the plan after it was accused of exploiting consumers’ fears for profit. 

Southwest and Delta have committed to leaving middle seats open through Sept. 30.