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.
The major U.S. airlines aren’t messing around with their mandatory mask policies anymore.
In early May, the leading U.S. airlines began requiring all passengers to wear a face mask over their nose and mouth, a requirement that now extends to the entire journey—passengers must wear masks at the airport, in lounges, at the boarding gate, during boarding and disembarkation, and in the baggage claim area. The new policies were enacted after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance for wearing face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19: The agency now recommends that we all wear what it calls a “cloth face covering” in public settings where social-distancing measures can’t be maintained.
In June, Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, took things a step further when it announced that its members have agreed to start “vigorously enforcing” their requirements that all passengers and crew wear masks.
Under the June agreement, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines all implemented updated mask policies that include the ability for the airlines to suspend flying privileges for passengers who don’t comply.
But they haven’t stopped there.
In July, Delta updated its mask policy to include that mask-less fliers will need to undergo a health screening (via a phone interview at the airport) prior to flying or “reconsider travel.” A few days later, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a Today Show interview that the airline had already put 100 people on its no-fly list for refusing to wear a mask onboard.
Delta’s latest mask policy also specifies that any mask with an exhaust valve will not be considered an acceptable face mask. The CDC notes that a mask with an exhalation valve, which can make it easier to breathe, “should not be used in situations where a sterile field must be maintained because the exhalation valve may allow unfiltered exhaled air to escape.”
Thus, JetBlue has a new mask policy that went into effect on August 10 that also prohibits masks with vents or exhalation valves. The airline’s new mask policy states that “customers with conditions that prevent them from wearing a face covering should postpone travel until this temporary requirement is no longer in place.”
The CDC states that the only people who should not wear masks are:
- Children younger than two years old
- Anyone who has trouble breathing
- Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance
But some airlines have decided that anyone who can’t wear a mask due to health reasons shouldn’t be flying.
Alaska, United say only children under two are exempt
As of August 7, all Alaska Airlines passengers age two and older are required to wear a mask over their nose and mouth while at the airport and on the flight with absolutely no exceptions, the airline said in a statement. Those who are unwilling or unable to wear a mask for any reason will not be permitted to travel. If they refuse to wear a mask after boarding their flight, they will be suspended from future travel.
United has said that customers who refuse to comply with its mandatory face-covering policy “may be refused transport” in addition to possibly losing their future travel privileges with United.
The only exceptions to United’s policy are children younger than two years old. Customers are expected to wear a mask for the duration of the flight, except when eating or drinking.
“Every reputable health institution says wearing a mask is one of the most effective things people can do to protect others from contracting COVID-19, especially in places like an aircraft where social distancing is a challenge,” United’s chief customer officer Toby Enqvist said in a statement.
United said it will provide masks to those who do not have one. If a customer is noncompliant, a flight attendant will file an incident report that will initiate a formal review process. Any final decision or actions regarding a customer’s future flight benefits will not occur onboard but after the flight has reached its destination and the incident has been investigated. United does not block middle seats, but the airline told AFAR that it is taking steps to limit the overall number of people onboard and to give fliers space by, for instance, switching to larger planes when possible.
Airlines’ enhanced safety measures
Masks are not meant to replace social distancing and other 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 been instituting other safety measures throughout the air travel process as well.
Here’s a cheat sheet to airline policies:
Alaska: mandatory masks; blocking middle seats (policy currently in place through October 31); enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
American: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff; asking customers to verify that they are symptom-free before traveling; enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
Delta: mandatory masks; automatically blocking out the seat next to travelers after they make a reservation (policy currently in place through September 30); reducing the number of passengers in each aircraft; enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
JetBlue: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff; blocking middle seats (policy currently in place through September 8); providing sanitation kits to customers with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes; enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
Southwest: mandatory masks; blocking middle seats (policy currently in place through October 31); providing sanitizing wipes to customers (upon request); enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
United: mandatory masks; temperature checks for staff and crew; limiting the number of passengers onboard; providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes; enhanced cleaning of aircraft.
Some airlines have installed plexiglass shields over the check-in counters to provide additional protection, and some have marked the floors and seating in waiting areas to ensure appropriate distance is maintained throughout the journey.
The mask issue and safety and health while flying are particularly pertinent as more and more travelers get back onto airplanes. This past Sunday, more than 830,000 fliers took to the skies in the United States—nearly 10 times as many as in mid-April when the number of passengers heading through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints hit rock bottom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This story originally appeared on June 15, 2020, and has been updated to include current information.
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