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United Airlines changes policies after viral photo shows fully-packed flight amid pandemic

United Airlines changes policies after viral photo shows fully-packed flight amid pandemic
Posted at 1:17 PM, May 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 13:17:30-04

United Airlines says it is updating its policies after a doctor's viral tweet showing a completely packed plane sparked outrage online.

According to KGO-TV in San Francisco, Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist, was returning home to the Bay Area after helping assist healthcare workers in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic. But while the situation in New York is dire, Weiss told KGO he was more afraid to board an airplane home than he was to enter a Manhattan hospital.

His fears turned out to be warranted. On Saturday, Weiss tweeted a photo that showed one of United's 737 planes booked to capacity. While most of the passengers wore masks during the flight, they were seated just inches apart, making proper distancing impossible.

"I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737," Weiss tweeted.

Weiss also pointed out in a later tweet that United had notified him in an email on April 30 that the airline would not be selling the middle seat on its flights.

"I guess a lot has changed in 10 days," Weiss said.

Weiss's photo was retweeted nearly 10,000 times between Saturday and Tuesday, and sparked a wave of outrage online.

On Tuesday, the airline tweeted that it would give passengers the options to re-book to a different flight or receive a travel credit if a flight is expected to be at full capacity. The airline will attempt to reach out to passengers within 24 hours, but will also allow passengers to change their travel plans at the gate.

United isn't alone in receiving criticism regarding social distancing on its flights. Viral tweets in recent days have also alleged that American Airlines and Delta Airlines have also flown near full capacity in recent days.

Demand for air travel has plummeted in recent weeks as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Congress allocated $25 billion in aid to the airline industry as part of the CARES Act.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering