A doctor returning home to San Francisco after completing coronavirus-related volunteer work in New York has caught attention for his photo of a packed United Airlines flight from Newark showing middle seats filled ⁠— despite the company's statements on social distancing.

The airline in April said that until at least May 31, passengers would not generally have to sit next to one another during flights, and would not be able to select the middle seat. Passengers and employees are also required to wear face coverings for the duration of their 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 airline says in a seating policy it posted online.

Air travel is down more than 90% compared to a year ago, according to the Associated Pres.

Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist at UCSF, tweeted a picture of masked passengers on Saturday sitting three across on board the crowded flight with the caption "I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737."

Weiss acknowledged in his tweets that United was flying his group of 25 doctors and nurses who had been in New York at no charge. He said he had "no idea" why the other passengers were traveling.

"People on this plane are scared/shocked," Weiss tweeted.

Trauma surgeon Rebecca Plavin in a re-tweet said "Hey United: I appreciate you getting us home from New York, but I’d prefer there be some level of social distancing."

Weiss told San Francisco TV station KGO TV he was "scared" to get on the flight because he had been tending to COVID-19 patients.

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United spokeswoman Charlie Hobart told New Jersey 101.5 that while Weiss' flight was 85% full with 22 open seats, most of the airline's flights are not. If a passenger has a concern about how many people are on board, he or she can take advantage of the airline's "flexible booking policies" currently in effect, Hobart said.

He said the next flight to San Francisco was less than half full.

Hobart acknowledged the medical professionals on board and said the airline has flown over 1,000 doctors and nurses at no charge in recent weeks.

"We’ve overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing," Hobart said.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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