A San Francisco doctor returning from volunteering at a New York City hospital to help fight the coronavirus says he was forced to endure a packed flight on United Airlines – despite the carrier’s promise to enforce social distancing.
Dr Ethan Weiss, a University of San Francisco cardiologist, shared a photo on Saturday of nearly every seat full on the plane out of Newark Airport in New Jersey.
“I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737,” Dr Weiss wrote.
There were many passengers on board who were “scared” and “shocked” by the airline’s lack of social distancing measures, he said.
“They could have avoided this by just communicating better,” Dr Weiss wrote of the airline. “They literally just sent an email 10 days ago telling all of us the middle seats would be empty.”
Dr Weiss said he was travelling with around 25 other nurses and doctors who have been volunteering on the front lines of Big Apple hospitals for the past few weeks.
He noted that he previously praised the airline for flying medical workers there for free, but said the nightmare return trip was the “last time I’ll be flying again for a very long time”.
Just days before flying, he had told ABC7: “I’m scared of getting on the aeroplane on Saturday. I’ve been taking care of COVID-19 patients for the last two weeks, and I’m more scared of getting on the aeroplane on Saturday than I’m walking into the hospital.”
Another physician returning home, Dr. Rebecca Palvin, also blasted the airline for not doing more to protect travellers.
“Hey @United: I appreciate you getting us home from New York, but I’d prefer there be some level of #socialdistancing,” she wrote.
The airline responded to the frontline workers’ complaints in a statement, saying it can no longer guarantee all customers will be booked next to an empty seat.
“Last month, we began limiting advanced seat selection for adjacent seats in all cabins, including middle seats where available and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs,” the company said in a statement to ABC7.
“Though 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.”
In April, Qantas was forced to start keeping the middle seat empty after a passenger shared a photo of a packed flight travelling from Townsville in far north Queensland to Brisbane.
In the image, almost every seat was filled and very few passengers wore a face mask.
A Qantas spokesperson said most flights had only been around 30 per cent full – however, passenger numbers increased over the Easter weekend when the image was taken.
As a result, the airline introduced formal social distancing so customers will only be seated at the window or aisle with the middle seat remaining vacant.
This article originally appeared on the New York Post and was reproduced with permission