For those traveling by air today the best protection against potential COVID-19 exposure is to wear a mask during the flight. But even as some US airlines insist that passengers wear masks, enforcement has been limited and consequences for non-compliance essentially nil. This week several airlines indicated a renewed focus on enforcement of those rules, with violators potentially barred from future flights.
Wearing a mask is a critical part of helping make air travel safer. The more people in a given space wearing masks, the fewer viral particles are making it into the space around them, decreasing exposure and risk.– Dr. James Merlino, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer at Cleveland Clinic
American, United adjust policies
Both American Airlines and United Airlines formally adjusted their policies as part of the push. For American the new policy indicates “American now may also deny future travel for customers who refuse to wear a face covering.” This is on top of the requirement to wear a mask during the boarding process. Similarly, United’s adjusted policy highlights multiple layers of interaction between cabin crew and uncooperative passengers. The company states unequivocally, “[A]ny passenger that does not comply when onboard a United flight will be placed on an internal travel restriction list.” But, in reality, the situation is far more nuanced.
As highlighted in internal documentation, passengers will receive multiple visits from a flight attendant before any official report is made. From that point – after the flight lands – Corporate Security will follow up on the issue. Maybe the passenger will see travel privileges suspended. Maybe not. And no firm policy on duration of that suspension.
Status quo elsewhere
For other airlines the rules do not appear to have changed. And the expected level of compliance or even whether the mask is required remains variable as well.
On JetBlue, for example, mask usage is mandatory on board. Since initiating that policy the company’s approach to non-compliant passengers includes a referral to ground security personnel and a review of future travel eligibility with the carrier. The company also points out that since the policy’s inception it has not experienced any major issues that required eligibility review.
Southwest Airlines also requires masks for its passengers and crew. The carrier chooses to “partly rely upon common courtesy and responsible actions, as a society, to ensure compliance with public health guidance.” To that end “Flight Attendants will encourage adherence to the policy onboard via announcements and personal interactions,” but the company stopped short of defining a formal policy structure for when travelers choose a different path.
Delta Air Lines similarly provided a statement noting “Wearing a mask is one of the many important steps Delta has implemented to keep customers and employees stay safe while flying. Moving forward, we will continue ensuring customers are aware of, acknowledge and comply with the requirement to wear a mask during boarding and throughout their flight.” But that does not appear to come with any additional enforcement policy.
Not all airlines are requiring a mask for passengers. Allegiant “strongly encourages passengers to wear face coverings” and provides one in a safety kit delivered upon boarding. But usage is not mandatory so compliance is less a concern.
Will booking patterns shift?
From a public health perspective the mask policies and compliance matter to help reduce spread of disease. For the airlines, however, the challenges are much more around passenger revenue and booking demand.
Data shows that Allegiant bookings held up strong compared to other carriers, punching well above its weight. Is that because the company has a more lax mask policy? Or because its passengers have different concerns compared to other markets? Or because the flight routes, with more nonstop services, are more appealing to customers?
Other airlines are still blocking middle seats, hoping that the customer-focused push will help restore some confidence and drive additional bookings. Can the more strict mask requirements similarly affect booking patterns?
And, again, it might all be moot, depending on just how serious the enforcement is.