By Alison Fox
May 12, 2020
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United Airlines said it will start notifying passengers if their flight is going to be full and offer alternative options following backlash from a photo of a totally full flight went viral.

Starting next week customers will be notified if their flight is "expected to be closer to full capacity," and will have the option to rebook a different flight or receive a travel credit.  The airline said it will try to notify customers before they come to the airport, but offer the option at the gate as well if more than 70 percent of passengers have checked in for the flight.

Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

United noted that even though they are operating at a significantly lower capacity, customers have fewer options to choose from which may lead to a fuller flight.

The policy will continue through June 30.

The move comes after a photo of a completely full United flight went viral over the weekend, even though the airline said it would be practicing social distancing. The photo was posted to Twitter by a doctor who was heading home on one of United free flights for medical workers after volunteering in New York City, noting that “people on this plane are scared/ shocked.”

Last month, United’s Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist wrote an email to customers promising the airline was “automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board.”

Now, in addition to its new policy, United said it will try to alternate window and aisle seats when people are seated in pairs. But the airline cautions that “While 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.”

Leaving the middle seat empty has become a popular consideration for airlines trying to navigate their way back after being devastated by the impact on travel by COVID-19.

Last week, Delta Air Lines said it would block middle seats as well as certain window and aisle seats from being booked to maintain social distancing on board. Similarly, Alaska Airlines has said all middle seats on large planes along with all aisle seats on small planes are being blocked for purchase through June 30.