United Under Fire For Flying Medical Volunteers On Packed Flight

United Airlines has come under fire after a photo was shared on social media yesterday, showing a doctor returning home on a crowded flight. The doctor and his fellow health workers were led to believe that middle seats on the aircraft would be vacated. However, this was not the case. While the doctor was alarmed, he reasoned that this incident could have been a miscommunication from United Airlines.

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United has come under fire for breaching perceived social distancing regulations. However, the airline says it did not. Photo: Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter photos show a crowded plane

On 9th May, a cardiologist who had been temporarily working in a COVID-19 unit in a New York hospital said he was shocked to find his Boeing 737 return flight home full of passengers.

A quick search on Flightera shows that the service could have been number UAL1483 flown by Boeing 737-800 on 9th May, leaving Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) at 10:30 UTC arriving at 17:58 UTC into San Fransisco International Airport (SFO). United has not confirmed this information.

Dr Ethan Weiss had been volunteering to battle the coronavirus pandemic in New York. When he took his free medical flight with United out to the city, his plane was close to empty.

However, the return journey was another matter.

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Mr Weiss’ flight was a mixture of travelers and health care professionals. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

Yesterday, Mr Weiss uploaded a photo of the aircraft showing nearly every single seat occupied on the Boeing 737. The doctor then shared an email that he had received from the CEO of United on 30th April stating that part of United’s protection measures included blocking its middle seats.

In the email that Mr Weiss shared, United said that it was “automatically blocking” the middle seat. However, this was not what the doctor and his colleagues experienced. Nor is it the information that United shares on its website.

Where did it all go wrong?

On its COVID-19 Safety Update page, United Airlines says:

“At the end of April, we implemented additional steps to promote social distancing on all United and United Express flights…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…The new changes include: Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available. We’re also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.”

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The incident could have been due to a miscommunication. Photo: Sunnya343 via Wikimedia Commons

Miscommunication from United to its passengers could be one explanation for this incident. The airline’s messaging was not transparent, and therefore it may have projected disparate expectations. This was something that Dr Ethan Weiss acknowledged himself. He told Forbes:

“The problem with what happened yesterday, is I think there was such a disconnect between people’s expectations and the reality.”

However, there could be another explanation.

More people are now flying

On its website, United states that its social distancing rules hinge on seat capacity at the time of take-off. Mr Weiss noted that on his outbound journey, there were very few passengers on board. However, after two weeks, more people have begun to travel. Not all the passengers on United’s 737 flight on Saturday were doctors and nurses. Just 25 out of the potential 166 passengers were doctors and nurses who worked with Mr Weiss.

It’s more likely that rather than miscommunication in this instance, United simply was not prepared for the volume of passengers it carried. That’s understandable, but should it have responded differently?

United Airlines check-in desk
More people are now flying, so where does the onus lie? Photo: Getty Images

The issue for United is that it is flying medical volunteers on a free round-trip. Therefore, it’s probable that the airline was thinking of its finances. As a result, it would probably be unwilling to lay on an extra unscheduled flight due to capacity issues when it did not perceive the risk to be significant.

Others might argue that given the nature of where these nurses and doctors had been working, and the proximity to other passengers in the cabin, United should have done more. We reached out to the airline for comment. It told Simple Flying:

“We’ve overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing. 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.”

Do you believe United responded appropriately given the circumstances? Or, should it have done something different to ensure passenger safety? Let us know what you think in the comments.