American Airlines ordered passengers to stop social distancing — because they hadn't paid for exit seats
A commercial airliner (AFP Photo/Scott Olson)

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that the flight crew on an American Airlines trip ordered two passengers to stop social distancing and move back to their seats.

The reason? The empty row they moved into cost slightly more.

"On a June 30 flight on American Airlines from Dallas to Newark, Joy Gonzalez, an aviation engineer based in Seattle, found herself seated at a window with two older passengers beside her in the middle and aisle seats," reported Elaine Glusac. "In order to gain more social distance, she and the aisle passenger both moved to seats behind them where two rows were empty. But before takeoff, a flight attendant ordered them back to their assigned seats, telling them they had not paid for those exit row seats, which are more expensive."

American, like many U.S. airlines, has spent the past several weeks blocking out the middle seat to maintain physical distance during the coronavirus pandemic. But as air travel has started to rebound, the policy has been enforced more sporadically, with passengers in lower-cost seats increasingly likely to find their aisle full. American denies this is their policy, but announced that middle seats will no longer be blocked out at all as of July 1.

The change has drawn criticism, including from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who blasted American as "incredibly irresponsible" and said he will introduce a bill to ban the sale of middle seats for the duration of the pandemic.