(Adds comments from U.S. congressman who chairs Transportation Committee, adds WASHINGTON to dateline)
By Tracy Rucinski and David Shepardson
CHICAGO/WASHINGTON, June 24 (Reuters) - A major U.S. pilots union said on Wednesday it has begun discussing with lawmakers a plan for the government to purchase seats on each flight to prevent passengers from having to sit next to strangers.
The idea, launched by the Allied Pilots Association (APA) representing American Airlines' 15,000 pilots, is aimed at easing a return to pre-pandemic passenger levels while creating an even playing field across the airline industry.
As of now, some but not all U.S. airlines are blocking middle seats or capping the number of seats they are selling on each flight in order to allow for more space between passengers and are requiring passengers to wear masks.
Air travel has dropped dramatically since the outbreak hit.
Under the plan, the price of empty seats would be based on industry average costs for 2019.
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters on Wednesday that airlines should voluntarily keep seats open between passengers, noting Congress awarded airlines nearly $25 billion for payroll costs through Sept. 30.
DeFazio will consider if additional governmental steps are needed beyond Sept. 30 to ensure spacing on airplanes.
The House approved legislation in May to require airline passengers to wear masks or face potential criminal penalties during the pandemic, but the U.S. Senate has not taken up the bill.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said last week the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has responsibility for public health, while the Federal Aviation Administration has oversight of aviation safety.
DeFazio said Dickson told him he does not believe the FAA has authority to mandate masks.
"If you didn't have the authority, we wouldn't have medical kits, we wouldn't have seat belts, we wouldn't have banned smoking (on airplanes)," DeFazio said. "They clearly have the authority. It is just not forthcoming because of the politics of this administration."
The FAA declined comment on DeFazio's remarks.
Reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Matthew Lewis