The ticket was free, but Dr. Ethan Weiss says the price was fear on a nearly full six-hour United Airlines flight home to San Francisco from the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus in New York.
After volunteering for two weeks to treat virus patients in the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, Weiss was among 25 medical professionals on the flight that United flew home for free.
But when he boarded the 737 on Saturday at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Weiss said he realized the airline wasn't doing what it promised to do in an email to keep passengers safe, including blocking off middle seats.
Before take-off, Weiss posted a selfie showing what appeared to be a full plane with passengers and crew members wearing masks and lucky to have six inches of space between them, let alone six feet, as most government stay-at-home orders recommend.
"I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737," tweeted Weiss, a cardiologist and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine.
The social media post went viral with other medical professionals on the same flight chiming in.
"Hey @United: I appreciate you getting us home from New York, but I’d prefer there be some level of #socialdistancing," tweeted Dr. Rebecca Plevin, a trauma surgeon at UCSF.
Even before catching the flight, Weiss said in an interview with ABC station KGO-TV in San Francisco that he was apprehensive.
"I'm scared of getting on the airplane 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 airplane on Saturday than I'm walking into the hospital," Weiss said. "If I randomly happen to be seated in an aisle seat and the person in the window seat has COVID I'm probably more likely to get infected there than I would be in the ICU."
Once he set foot on the plane, he said he realized his fears were justified and decided to document the roughly six-hour flight home.
He tweeted an email he says he received on April 30 from United's chief customer officer, saying, "We're automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board."
"Also I guess this has changed in 10 days," Weiss tweeted from his aisle seat after seeing many middle seats occupied.
Toward the end of the flight, Weiss tweeted that "people on this plane are scared/shocked." He added, "I have no idea why most of them are traveling" and noted, "I am with a group of 25 nurses and doctors who have been working in NYC hospitals for the past 2-4 weeks."
In a statement to ABC News, United Airlines disputed Weiss' claim that the flight was completely full, saying the plane was about 85% of capacity with 22 seats left empty. While the airline said most of its flights have been 50% full, it added it is limiting advanced seat selection and "could not guarantee that all customers will be seated next to an unoccupied seat."
"We've overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing," United said in a statement. "Our flight to San Francisco had an additional 25 medical professionals on board who were flying for free to volunteer their time in New York -- we've provided complimentary flights for more than 1,000 doctors and nurses in the past few weeks alone -- and all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy."
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told ABC News that seeing photos of crowded planes, particularly the one tweeted by Dr. Weiss, was alarming. She alleges the airlines will continue to pack planes unless ordered by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) to reduce capacity on flights.
"The first thing I thought is, DOT needs to take action here," Nelson told ABC News. "This really has to be directed from the government."
While the DOT has issued orders to airlines to refund customers whose flights have been canceled due to the pandemic, the agency has yet to issue directives regulating the number of passengers allowed on flights.
This story has been updated to reflect new reporting.
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