Airlines Get Serious About Face Coverings

Failure to comply could see some ticket holders grounded.

Airline efforts to stem COVID-19 infections include leaving open the middle seat on all aircraft

Americans planning airline travel the past month have felt as if they’re caught in the middle of a family argument over expectations related to COVID-19. Some airlines said they’ve demanded face coverings while others have only recommended the move. Some airlines said they’d leave the middle seat open to support the social-distancing efforts while others say they’ll fill up every available seat when possible.

So should passengers wear a face covering—and when? What if they don’t like wearing masks? Most Americans understand that wearing a face-covering is the best thing they can do to minimize the risk they might expose another individual to the virus. While the airlines want to return to profitability as soon as possible, which means filling all the seats, none want to put their cabin or cockpit crewmembers in the uncomfortable position of policing health-related demands, with a segment of the population that feels they have the right to refuse.

On Tuesday, Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization representing the leading US airlines, said its member carriers will now be vigorously enforcing face-covering policies, though how those efforts shake out will still to some degree depend upon which airline a passenger chooses to fly with. A4A President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio said, “US airlines are very serious about requiring face coverings on their flights. Carriers are stepping up enforcement of face coverings and implementing substantial consequences for those who do not comply with the rules. Face coverings are one of several public health measures recommended by the CDC as an important layer of protection for passengers and customer-facing employees.”

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have signed on to A4A’s policy related to face coverings. The A4A said each airline “will clearly articulate its individual face-covering policy in communications with customers, which may require passengers to acknowledge the specific rules during the check-in process.” Once on board the aircraft, “crew members will announce specific details regarding the carrier’s face-covering policy including the consequences passengers could face for violating the policy.” Importantly, each airline will determine the appropriate consequences for passengers who are found to be in noncompliance of the airline’s face-covering policy, up to and including suspension of flying privileges on that airline.

Southwest Airlines said in a statement the airline “will deny boarding to any customer choosing not to wear a face mask or covering while traveling with us,” while United Airlines said passengers who fail to comply with the face-covering requirement will be added to a potential no-fly-like list after airline personnel complete the required evaluation steps necessary to ensure passengers understood the requirement. Southwest promises to leave the middle seats unoccupied on all flights for the foreseeable future.

The problem facing all airlines is that compliance with no-smoking and seat belt requirements for example, are relatively easy for cabin crew members; these restrictions are demanded by the FAA. But the demand for face coverings came from A4A, not the FAA.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines told Flying in an e-mail that, “Masks are essential to keep passengers, flight attendants, and frontline aviation workers safe during the Coronavirus pandemic. It is also essential to rebuild confidence in air travel. The federal government has completely abdicated its responsibility to keep the flying public and aviation workers safe during COVID-19. Today’s action by Airlines for America members is important, but the industry alone cannot fix this. We once again call on the federal government to mandate masks for passengers and frontline workers and implement broader action on COVID-19 safety measures in aviation.”

In the past, the FAA has refused to take a stance on the face covering issue claiming it’s beyond the agency’s purview. The FAA sees COVID-19 as a public health problem.

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