Why Are US Airlines Requiring Face Masks But Not Enforcing Them?

US airlines made news when they instituted requirements for passengers to wear masks just this month. However, some airlines– United, American, and Delta, in particular– are telling their employees not to enforce it but, instead, encourage it once in the sky.

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Most major airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks during flight. Photo: Hawaiian Airlines

Mask requirements

United, American, and Delta all added mandatory mask policies for customers starting this month. The airlines cited guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as requiring passengers to wear a mask. The CDC states on its website that cloth face coverings (non-medical or non-surgical masks) are recommended for people that have to go out in public. Masks are designed not just to protect yourself, but to protect others from you, since asymptomatic people can spread the virus.

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Frontier and American both require passengers to wear a cloth face covering. Photo: Getty Images

American, Delta, and United are also working to provide masks for customers who need them. In addition, at these airlines, some of their own employees are helping to make masks for airline employees. When possible, airlines are even providing hand sanitizers or sanitizing wipes for passengers all this to help contain the spread of the coronavirus and keep passengers healthy. Masks can be removed temporarily for eating and drinking.

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Delta is giving passengers a snack bag with hand sanitizing wipe. Photo: Getty Images

But, now Reuters reports that guidance from some airlines is indicating that the enforcement of this requirement onboard the flight is where it starts to get tricky.

Policies at major airlines

Simple Flying reached out to American, United, and Delta for comment. United Airlines provided Simple Flying its policy:

Customers who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering, those who cannot put on or remove a face covering themselves and small children will not be required to wear one on board. If a customer falls outside these categories yet still refuses to wear a face covering, the customer service agent would pull them aside to further understand their concerns and discuss options. This would include things like moving them to a new seat where they could maintain a safe social distance from other passengers. Because the safety of our passengers and employees is our top priority, there could be an isolated situation where a customer may be denied boarding as a last resort, but this would be handled on a case by case basis.

And, onboard the aircraft, United’s policy is the following:

And on the aircraft, the flight attendant’s role is to inform and remind, similar to that of all of our safety policies like putting up your tray table for landing and keeping your seatbelt fastened. This can come in the form of in-flight announcements and walking through the cabin to remind customers personally.

Essentially, United will start enforcing the policy on the ground in hopes of keeping it alive in the air. While the airline is not indicating that it will deny boarding to a passenger, it could be a possibility. Denied boarding would make sense if a passenger refuses to wear a mask, and the aircraft is full.

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United will work with customers who do not wear masks starting on the ground. Photo: Getty Images

However, it appears that United would still allow a passenger without a mask to fly if it can provide a safe social distance from other passengers onboard an aircraft.

United will only deny boarding to passengers not wearing a mask on a case-by-case basis, not a blanket policy. Photo: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines shared the following policy:

Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our employees and customers. Customers are required to wear face coverings beginning in the check-in lobby, and across Delta touchpoints including Delta Sky Clubs, in jet bridges and onboard for the duration of the flight – except during meals. A face mask is required to begin the boarding process, and also strongly encouraged in high-traffic areas including security lines and restrooms. People unable to keep a face covering in place, including children, are exempt.

Delta cannot require a passenger to wear a mask at a security checkpoint or restroom outside of its aircraft. But, it seems that the airline is taking a strong stance with wearing a mask onboard. Passengers will be required to wear a mask during boarding. Moreover, Delta is also asking passengers who do not have a face mask to seek one out from a Delta employee.

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Delta Air Lines has required passengers to wear masks since May 4th. Photo: Getty Images

Delta did not offer information about enforcement onboard. However, flight attendants will likely try and monitor this as much as possible. Delta has been abrupt in terms of limiting capacity and promoting social distancing as possible onboard the aircraft.

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Onboard aircraft, Delta is selling fewer seats to try and promote social distancing. Photo: Getty Images

American Airlines was not immediately available for comment, and this article will be updated accordingly. However, the airline does require masks to be worn before boarding and while onboard the aircraft.

The problem with enforcing mask requirements

Airlines do not have a playbook for operating during a pandemic. Instead, most are focused currently on surviving. Meanwhile, passengers are concerned about traveling during the pandemic.

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Some airports are requiring people to wear masks from arrival through boarding. Photo: Getty Images

Enforcement onboard also comes with a host of other concerns. Disruptive passengers can cause diversions. But, is a passenger who refuses to wear a mask an issue of the same urgency that would require a diversion? None of the three airlines expressly indicate such a policy. In addition, while a flight attendant can provide a mask to a passenger if necessary, short of perhaps taping a passenger to their seat and forcing them to wear a mask, the only thing they really can do is encourage and try to persuade a passenger.

Hopefully, few passengers refuse to wear masks while flying. Photo: Getty Images

If you are a passenger onboard an aircraft and are uncomfortable with someone who is not wearing a mask, you can reach out to a flight attendant. Perhaps, given the low load factors onboard most flights, there are other seats open where you can move. Or, instead, a flight attendant may be able to convince that person to wear a mask. If you have an extra mask and a passenger needs it either because maybe theirs broke or else got wet and uncomfortable, you could offer yours up or else call a flight attendant and see if there are reserves.

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Flight crew are now also required to wear masks. Photo: Getty Images

Beyond this, taking matters into your own hands is largely a bad idea. Some passengers may not react well, and disruptions onboard an aircraft can still land you in serious trouble.

Should I wear a mask?

All adults should wear a mask when flying. It is best to be prepared in case an airline does deny you boarding for not having a mask. In addition, continue to wear a mask onboard the aircraft. While you may not be concerned about contracting an illness, a mask will help contain the spread of any germs you may be carrying unknowingly.

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Wear a mask when you fly. Photo: Getty Images

While masks will not stop the spread of particles entirely, it does reduce the diffusion of droplets throughout a cabin. This is especially important in a confined space like an aircraft where social distancing is not always possible.

Are you a flight attendant? What are you going to do if a passenger refuses to wear a mask? What do you think flight attendants or airlines should do? Let us know in the comments!