Airlines Wrestle with Face Mask Policies Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic: ‘The Current Policies are Toothless’

A flight attendant with face mask and eye shield

By Paul Riegler on 17 May 2020
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While U.S. airlines want customers to see the friendly skies as safe from the novel coronavirus and all have policies requiring face masks, their approaches enforcement varies widely.

American Airlines will deny boarding to a passenger not wearing a mask, as will JetBlue Airways. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Southwest Airlines has told its gate agents not to stop passengers from boarding if they arrive sans mask, and United Airlines will allow passengers in most cases to board without a face covering.

“We will not deny boarding solely based on a customer’s refusal to wear a face covering,” the airline said in a memorandum to employees.   United’s policy is equally wishy-washy.

Worse, once in the air, carriers are telling employees to avoid escalating a situation if a passenger refuses to keep a mask on, and the federal government has to date no moved to require masks in flights, although airlines expect passengers to have them on, covering nose and mouth, except while eating or drinking.

Flight attendants are further being told to encourage passengers to comply and to use de-escalation skills to avoid a confrontation or to address when a passenger is upset about an unmasked passenger.  Pilots at American Airlines have been told that a passenger’s failure to comply with crew instructions to wear a mask is not sufficient cause alone to divert a flight.

Airline employees, however, are livid.

In April, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents crewmembers who work for 20 carriers, sent a letter asking that the federal government mandate face coverings for passengers as well as crew.

The group says these lax standards put both their members and the flying public at risk.

JetBlue, which admits that its employees will encounter “challenges” in attempting to enforce policy, and asks employees to “remember to leverage our Hospitality Promises and ‘Ask, Bargain & Convince’ skills to de-escalate a situation with a non-compliant or frustrated customer.”

“It’s hard to imagine a good outcome in an age where fights erupt mid-air after one passenger reclines his seat, which is his right, or even over a crying baby,” a long-time Delta Air Lines employee who asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his employer told Frequent Business Traveler.  “The current policies are toothless and I wouldn’t feel completely safe as a member of the flying public until the federal government not only mandates face masks but puts penalties into place for non-compliance.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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