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United Rolls Out Changes After Photos Of Packed SF-Bound Flight During COVID-19 Pandemic Go Viral

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) - A doctor returning from New York to San Francisco on a United Airlines flight posted pictures of his packed plane, raising serious concerns about air travel safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

In apparent response to photos showing full flights with little social distancing, United Airlines announced a brand new policy giving passengers 24-hours warning and an opportunity to cancel or re-book a flight that's expected to be near capacity.

The airline also said it would notify passengers at check-in if the flight was full by 70 percent, or more.

"There were 15 passengers. It was almost empty," says passenger Anna Cabrera of her first flight since the start of the outbreak.

"I was very concerned about how the safety in the airport and airplane was going to be. I was worried about whether the airplane was going to be full -- if there was going to be enough separation," Cabrera said.

Airlines have seen the number of passengers on planes plummet during the pandemic. In response, many of the major airlines have cut flights and consolidated flight routes. That has raised the specter of fewer -- but fuller flights. It is a possibility that has elicited mixed responses from the flying public.

"I would feel very comfortable if there was a person on my left and my right because I know the airline has already cleaned the seats. And second, the people have already been instructed on wearing PPE," says Cabrera's husband Harvey.

Others were less convinced of the safety of flying in close quarters with strangers.

"One of the other passengers was right behind me. If it gets any more crowded, I wouldn't like it," says passenger Jay Kwon.

"It would cause me some anxiety but it wouldn't prohibit me from flying," says passenger Jay Sweeney.

United Airlines says it could not always guarantee enough empty seats to allow social distancing. The airline wrote on its website, "Given our significantly reduced schedule, we want to ensure customers have an opportunity to get to their destinations, particularly in places where we're only operating a single flight per day, so some flights may have more customers on board than others."

Other airlines like American have adopted more stringent social distancing rules. American has capped capacity on its flights by leaving half of the middle seats empty. The airline says that will allow passengers and flight attendants to appropriately space themselves out.

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