Passengers Stunned by Full Flights Despite Coronavirus Social Distancing

Airlines said they're taking precautions, but passengers are worried by the numbers of people on flights.

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Images of packed flights during the coronavirus pandemic are drawing criticism as airlines say they're taking precautions.

Ethan Weiss, a doctor from San Francisco, tweeted a picture showing doctors, nurses and medical staff returning to the West Coast on a United flight Saturday after caring for coronavirus patients in New York. 

The flight was provided for free by Chicago-based United, but it was full.

United told NBC 5 in part, "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.”

Still, full and more-than-expected crowded flights seem to be happening on several airlines, according to passengers.

One passenger sent NBC 5 a picture of what appeared to be a more crowded American Airlines flight from O’Hare International Airport to Miami.

That flight, according to American Airlines, had roughly 53 empty seats, and passengers had the option to relocate to give them greater distancing.

"They told me if you travel with a family they will give you a row," said Zury. "But if not they will have a seat in between. That didn’t happen for many rows that I passed."

Transportation expert and DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman said this issue is something all airlines must tackle.

“I think airlines may need to start thinking of a more overt strategy, such as temperature checks for people getting on the planes or brief screenings to see if they have an purported symptoms," Schwieterman said. "A packed airplane really does run counter to what people think is appropriate right now.”

Paula Roa saw a more crowded line for the ticketing counter at O’Hare yesterday.

Already feeling uncomfortable seeing some people without masks or not maintaining 6 feet apart, Roa was told that her Spirit Airlines flight to her home in Florida was full.

“I asked them to explain what full was," Roa said. "If they were keeping aisle seats open or if they were staggering passengers and they said no, they were not staggering anyone.”

She chose not to board that flight.

“I would like to see the FAA impose rules on these airlines," Roa added. "Just like the governors are imposing rules on restaurants and other businesses.”

Nelle Gretzinger was making her way to Traverse City, Michigan, through Chicago on United Airlines last week.

She said she called ahead to be sure that they were taking the proper precautions by wearing masks and maintaining distance by keeping the middle seat open.

“I was shocked when, and very chagrined when, I boarded the plane to find that many, many of the middle seats were occupied," Gretzinger said.

She was going to be seated directly next to someone, so she spoke up.

“They did ultimately fix the problem, but I don’t think they would have unless I said something.”

"The airlines, I don’t think, have made the case that we have the formula down to prevent the coronavirus from passing," Schwieterman added.

Until that happens, some say they will choose not to board a plane where they cannot keep a safe distance.

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