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A Picture Prompts United to Pivot on Coronavirus Policy

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A picture of a cross-country United Airlines UAL flight packed with customers elbow to elbow wearing face masks has prompted the airline to pivot on its coronavirus passenger-seating policy.

Following a viral photo showing a packed United cross-country flight from Newark, N.J. to San Francisco, 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."

The photo, taken by Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist and an associate professor at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of California in San Francisco, sparked a Twitter-storm of rage at United for allowing so many passengers on board. 

Specifically, Weiss called out United for not adhering to its own public offer of keeping middle seats empty to give passengers a bit of distance from one another.  

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."

The policy shift, announced by United late Monday evening, will now 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. 

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