This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
JetBlue this week became the first U.S. airline to require that all customers wear a face mask over their nose and mouth during check-in, boarding, in flight, and when deplaning—a rule that goes into effect on May 4.
Within a few days, United, American, Delta, and Southwest had all followed suit. United’s and Delta’s new face mask policies go into effect on May 4 as well, while American’s and Southwest’s will begin on May 11.
JetBlue’s new policy followed the airline’s existing face mask mandate for crew members, who started wearing face coverings earlier in April.
“This is the new flying etiquette,” Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “Wearing a face covering isn’t about protecting yourself—it’s about protecting those around you.”
JetBlue customers will be reminded about the new requirement prior to their flight via email and again at the airport with terminal signage and announcements, the carrier said. A JetBlue spokesperson told AFAR that while the airline plans to have a small number of masks on hand that staff can provide to passengers, the airline believes that most travelers will have procured their own preferred mask in advance of their flight. Small children who cannot maintain a face covering on their own are exempt (and public health authorities do not recommend face masks for children under two years old).
The news follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated guidance for wearing face masks to help slow the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19: The agency now recommends that we wear what it calls a “cloth face covering” in public settings where social distancing measures are hard to maintain.
Previously, it was advised that only those who are knowingly sick wear a mask to protect others. But as we await more widespread testing for COVID-19 and don’t yet know who among us could be carrying the virus without realizing it, unknowing carriers could be spreading it through respiratory droplets when they talk, cough, or sneeze.
The CDC is asking those of us who are not on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic—those who are not health-care workers or medical first responders—to wear cloth face coverings and not surgical masks or N95 respirators. This is so that we don’t deplete the supplies for those who are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients and thus are at the highest risk of exposure.
The new mask policies at American, Delta, United, and Southwest
Starting on May 4, United will make face masks mandatory for all of its customers and will also make masks available to passengers. On April 24, United began requiring that all flight attendants wear masks. The airline said in a memo to employees (shared via email with AFAR) that it will supply masks on all flights to ensure flight attendants have one mask each for each workday. Flight attendants can also wear their own cloth masks.
American Airlines said its passengers will be required to start wearing face masks on May 11, and in early May the carrier will also start distributing face masks to passengers alongside sanitizing wipes or gel “as supplies and conditions allow.” Masks are required for American flight attendants as of May 1.
Delta passengers will be required to wear face masks starting on May 4. The airline also said it will make masks and sanitizers available to customers at ticket counters, gates, and onboard airplanes when supplies are available. On April 27, Delta sent a memo to its employees (which it shared with AFAR) stating that effective April 28, all employees are required to wear masks or face coverings when unable to maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves and a coworker or customer. The carrier is providing masks and face coverings to its Delta employees, and the current requirement will remain in place through June 30, at which time the company said it will re-evaluate the policy.
Southwest passengers will have to start wearing masks on its flights beginning May 11, and the airline said that for those who forget their mask at home, one will be made available.
Many of the airlines also reminded customers that mask requirements can vary at each airport and in each destination, so fliers should make sure they are up to date on the latest policies in the destinations and hubs they are flying out of and in to.
Other social distancing measures onboard
Masks are not meant to replace social distancing and public health measures that have been put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19—they are meant to be an added line of defense, according to the CDC. Thus, airlines have also been instituting other safety measures onboard as well.
In addition to enhanced sanitation and cleaning measures the airlines have implemented, some have ensured that they will space out passengers onboard, too.
On April 13, Delta began blocking the middle seats in its main cabins and in Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select seats on all flights, a policy it currently has in place through June 30. Customers who prefer to be seated directly next to travel companions and family members can contact the reservations department. The airline said it is also reducing the number of customers on each flight but didn’t provide specifics. Passengers are being boarded 10 at a time to give them added space as they board.
As of the end of April, United customers were no longer able to select seats next to each other or the middle seats on aircraft to promote social distancing onboard. The airline is also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs. Similar to Delta, United is boarding fewer customers at a time as well.
Other carriers have said they will space passengers out on flights, including Southwest and JetBlue.
This article originally appeared on April 29, 2020, and has been updated to include current information.