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United Shifts Coronavirus Seating Policy After Full-Flight Backlash

United unveils a formal policy shift that will provide more social-distancing on flights following doctor's viral photo of packed San Francisco-bound plane.

Following a viral photo showing a packed United Airlines  (UAL) - Get United Airlines Holdings, Inc. Report flight, the airline announced that starting next week it will notify passengers ahead of time if their flight is expected to be "closer to full capacity."

Shares of United tumbled on Monday following the social-media uproar sparked by a photo taken by Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist and an associate professor at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of California in San Francisco, of the San Francisco-bound flight packed to the brim with mask-wearing passengers.

Weiss took to Twitter while flying home to the West Coast on Saturday with a group of 25 doctors and nurses who had spent up to a month helping out at coronavirus-strapped hospitals in the New York area.

Weiss also posted a late-April statement from United's chief customer officer saying the airline would be "automatically blocking middle seats."

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The policy shift, announced by United late Monday evening, will allow passengers to re-book on a different flight or receive a travel credit if the airline cannot accommodate giving passengers social-distancing space. 

The airline said it will allow passengers to change their flights or get a credit even after they check in, and right up to before they board.

United said that 85% of its flights are currently less than half full, but given a drastically reduced flying schedule in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, "there are a small number of flights where our customers are finding planes fuller than they expect."

Airlines have been experiencing a triple whammy of international flight bans, a steep fall-off in business and leisure travel and unprecedented efforts to follow coronavirus-curbing and social-distancing guidelines that are challenging to implement in confined spaces – all of which have added to record declines in revenue.

Shares of United were down 0.88% at $23.76 in trading on Tuesday.