Ethan Weiss, a San Francisco-based cardiologist, was worried.
For the past two weeks, Weiss had been in New York, the epicenter of the U.S. novel coronavirus outbreak, volunteering at hospitals to help care for patients infected with the virus. But as Weiss tells it, he was about to face an even more daunting task this weekend: the plane trip back to San Francisco.
On Saturday, the doctor’s fears were confirmed when he and 25 other medical professionals found themselves on a jam-packed flight from Newark to San Francisco — despite a previous assurance from United that social distancing measures would be in place.
“I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737,” Weiss tweeted, sharing a picture of the crowded plane.
Although everyone in the image appears to be wearing some sort of face covering, Weiss wrote in a now-viral Twitter thread that the rows of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder did not align with an email he received from United before Saturday’s flight saying that middle seats would be left open to ensure passengers can keep their distance.
In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, a United spokeswoman stressed that the airline has taken a number of safety precautions amid the ongoing pandemic.
“We’ve overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing,” said spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs. Gibbs added that “all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy.”
United, meanwhile, said Monday it will allow customers to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit when a jet is close to capacity, the latest effort by the airline industry to address travel anxiety. The option goes into effect next week and will run through June 30, United said.
United said 85 percent of its flights are less than half-full. Lighter demand in air travel, though, has prompted airlines to reduce schedules and consolidate flights, resulting in some crowded planes.
“To make it easier for our customers to plan, we’ll do our best to contact them about 24 hours before their departure time so they can decide whether to adjust their plans before they arrive at the airport — and we’ll provide this option at the gate, if more than 70 percent of customers have checked in,” United said.
Weiss’s tweets sparked outcry on social media, leaving many concerned that social distancing efforts on airplanes would be abandoned as the country continues reopening and more people begin traveling again. On Friday, ahead of Mother’s Day weekend, the Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 215,000 people passed through checkpoints, the highest number of travelers since March 25.