June 24, 2020 12:45 PM, EDT

American Air Pilots Want US to Buy Seats for Distancing

Passengers wear protective masks on an American Airlines flightPassengers wear protective masks on an American Airlines flight departing from Los Angeles on June 13. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

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American Airlines Group Inc.’s pilots are calling on the U.S. government to pay for enough jetliner seats to enable social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, saying the move would help support carriers through the worst collapse in industry history.

The estimated cost of the proposal would be about $1.9 billion a month for the 10 largest U.S. carriers as they operate at an average 40% of their normal flying capacity, the Allied Pilots Association said in a statement June 24. That would rise to $3.8 billion when the airlines reach 80% of normal schedules and decline as immunity to the coronavirus rises, the union said.

The plan would expand federal aid for devastated U.S. airlines, which already have received $25 billion for payroll costs and can borrow another $25 billion from the Treasury Department. As the pandemic gutted demand, carriers slashed flying, parked or retired planes and encouraged workers to take leave or early retirement. Yet the risk looms of mass job losses when restrictions tied to the federal support expire after September.

“In the absence of any additional government assistance, economic pressures might leave the airlines no choice but to curtail the return to service of additional aircraft or the reintroduction of previous routes, with significant layoffs after Sept. 30, 2020, a very likely result,” the union said.

The largest U.S. airlines are limiting the number of seats they sell on each flight to allow middle seats to remain open, although some only do so when demand allows. The limits are designed to help prevent any spread of coronavirus during flights. But carriers including Delta Air Lines Inc. have said that forgoing the sale of as much as 40% of seats per plane isn’t sustainable.

While domestic leisure travel has risen slightly, in some cases producing crowding on the smaller number of flights available, airlines have said that a full recovery could take as long as three years.

Carriers have adopted extensive cleaning procedures at airport gates and on planes and require masks in efforts to build confidence that commercial air travel is safe.

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