Doctor on crowded United flight says passengers were 'scared' and 'shocked'

Dr. Ethan Weiss said he was with a group of 25 nurses and doctors who were returning home after having volunteered in New York City hospitals.

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By Gwen Aviles

A doctor's tweet about "scared" and "shocked" passengers on a crowded United Airlines flight has highlighted the difficulties of physical distancing while traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days?" Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist who was flying from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, tweeted alongside a picture of himself sitting in a packed aircraft. "Every seat full on this 737."

Weiss wrote that he was with a group of 25 nurses and doctors who were returning home after having volunteered in New York City hospitals for the past two to four weeks and that he wasn't sure why other passengers were traveling. He added that the flight would be "the last time" he'd be flying again "in a long time."

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He also posted a picture of an email he said he received from United instructing him that the airline would be "blocking middle seats" as a preventive measure and to give passengers "enough room" to board. That wasn't the case, as passengers were sitting in the middle seats, according to Weiss' picture and thread, which he posted Saturday.

Weiss did not immediately responded to NBC News' requests for comment. However, a United spokesperson said Monday that the airline had "overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing." The spokesperson also said "all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy."

But Weiss said the close quarters left passengers "scared" and "shocked."

"They could have avoided this by just communicating better," Weiss wrote. "They literally just sent an email 10 days ago telling all of us the middle seats would be empty."

United is one of several airlines that have recently implemented policies blocking middle seats to maintain physical distancing.

On Monday, an American Airlines traveler posted a picture that appeared to show that a flight from New York City to the Washington, D.C., area was also packed — even though the carrier insisted that wasn't the case.

The Twitter user tagged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to say there was "no social distancing whatsoever" on Flight 4333 from LaGuardia Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.

But an American spokesman insisted that the image doesn't properly show "25 seats not occupied" on the regional E-175 and that "the aircraft was not at max capacity." The airline has pledged to keep 50 percent of middle seats empty; this smaller craft has seats only in pairs.

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Although airline traffic has significantly decreased in light of the pandemic — the Transportation Security Administration reported that the number of people traveling by plane hit a 10-year low last month — there are indications that it will pick up as areas of the country reopen. The agency said it screened 215,444 passengers Friday, the highest daily number since March 25.

David K. Li and Ali Gostanian contributed.