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United updates social distancing policies after viral photo of crowded flight

A United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco is crowded with passengers in this picture obtained from social media May 9, 2020. (Ethan Weiss via Reuters) (Ethan Weiss via Reuters)

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. coronavirus outbreak, volunteering at hospitals to help care for patients infected with the novel 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.

“I’m more scared of getting on the airplane on Saturday than I’m walking into the hospital,” Weiss told KGO.

This weekend, 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.

Weiss’s now-viral Twitter thread detailing his experience 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. In recent days, similar complaints about unexpectedly congested flights have come from passengers on other major carriers including American Airlines and Delta.

On Monday, just days after Weiss’s trip, United announced that it would be “implementing additional, temporary changes to promote social distancing in the air and on the ground.”

Starting next week through June 30, United said it will allow passengers to rebook or receive a travel credit if they end up on flights that are closer to full capacity.

“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% of customers have checked in,” the airline said in a post on its website.

United said 85 percent of its flights are less than half-full, but noted that reduced scheduling and flights being consolidated has caused some instances of overcrowding.

That appeared to be the case Saturday, according to Weiss, who snapped a photo of the departures board in Newark ahead of his trip. The board listed less than a dozen United flights.

Still, the doctor was surprised by the number of travelers on his plane. Although everyone in the image appears to be wearing some sort of face covering, Weiss wrote 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.

On its website, United clarified its seating policy, writing that it would be “adjusting our seat selection systems to avoid where possible seating customers next to each other, except when traveling together.”

“While we cannot guarantee that all customers will be seated next to an unoccupied seat, based on historically low travel demand and the implementation of our various social distancing measures, that is the likely outcome,” the notice said.

In an emailed statement to The Washington Post on Sunday, a United spokeswoman stressed that the airline has taken a number of other 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,” spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs said. Gibbs added that “all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy.”

Demand for air travel has all but evaporated with the coronavirus, but airlines are still flying. And as of May, passengers must wear masks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Steven Goff contributed to this report.

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