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‘Super anxious the entire flight’: Travelers feel more exposed to COVID-19 as airlines ease policies

Coronavirus infection rates have skyrocketed, but now some airlines are taking away protections some passengers counted on to stay safe.

Virus infection rates soared to new record highs across Florida, so Liz Torrez never expected to find nearly all the seats filled on her American Airlines flight from Orlando to Tucson, Arizona. But that’s just what she discovered when checking online seating.

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“It made me very concerned. I’m almost 70 years old and I’ve been social distancing and being very careful,” Torres said.

She was so worried about her safety, she bought a first class ticket instead to avoid middle-seat passengers.

And American Airlines just announced it would be filling flights to capacity if possible. The airline would get rid of the empty middle seats for social distancing.

“Well I think it’s terrible. I don’t think we’re ready to be flying at full capacity, especially when you are flying from Orlando to Tucson where numbers in both states are rising,” Torres said.

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It's not just American Airlines. United Airlines now has a similar policy and the airline industry is defending the move to full flights.

Airlines for America said other safety measures, like mandatory masks, keep passengers safe, and it's just not possible to social distance on a plane.

But many passengers don't see it that way.

“Do you think the airline put you at risk?” Todd Ulrich asked.

“I would say so, yes,” replied a worried traveler.

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One consumer Ulrich interviewed wanted to remain anonymous. She contacted Action 9 after she felt trapped on an Allegiant Air flight where the middle seats were filled and she said most passengers were not wearing masks.

“I felt super anxious the entire flight, both ways,” she said.

Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines also fill middle seats on some flights.

“Is that fair to the consumer?” Ulrich asked.

“I think the airlines are putting profits over public health and it’s wrong,” said Susan Grant.

Grant is with the Consumer Federation of America and says the timing couldn't be worse as Covid cases spike and social distancing, not crowding a flight, offers protection.

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Her organization backs proposed federal legislation to keep middle seats open.

“I know there are some members of congress who are very interested in doing it but airlines have a powerful lobbying machine and they’ve fought off attempts so far,” Grant said.

Delta, jetBlue, and Southwest are limiting capacity but only for the next month or two, leaving many passengers wondering what risks they’ll face on full flights.

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“It doesn’t make any sense to me and it makes it very scary to travel,” Torres said.

If you feel full flights are too risky, you still have options. Most airlines are giving you the chance to reschedule to another flight that still has empty seats. And you can make the change without penalties.

Todd Ulrich

Todd Ulrich,

I am WFTV's Action 9 Reporter.

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