On Monday I wrote that I expected mask wearing to the be next thing people get in onboard fights over. Airlines clearly expected the same thing because it turns out they are telling crew not to enforce mask requirements while inflight to the point of a diversion. This is the case for American, Delta, and United.
“Once on board and off the gate, the face covering policy becomes more lenient. The flight attendant’s role is informational, not enforcement, with respect to the face covering policy,” American told its pilots in a message seen by Reuters explaining its policy, which went into effect on Monday.
“Bottom line to the pilots: a passenger on board your aircraft who is being compliant with the exception of wearing a face covering is NOT considered disruptive enough to trigger a Threat Level 1 response,” referring to some kind of intentional disruption by a passenger that could cause the captain to divert the flight.
After the first quarter American Airlines earnings call, CEO Doug Parker told employees that they had been considering making masks mandatory but were concerned about asking flight attendants to enforce it. He explained that there were numerous exceptions, such as small children and those with medical conditions who shouldn’t wear masks, and they aren’t well geared towards enforcing safety rules that aren’t black-and-white. It was later the same day that they announced masks as required.
Here in Austin, and in several other Texas cities, masks were required. However the governor’s re-opening plan forbade cities from imposing penalties for failure to wear a mask. That made masks mandatory without repercussion. Austin’s Mayor says the penalty for not wearing a mask “is that more people are going to get infected and some people are going to die. So, the penalty is different now. I’m hoping that people will take this particular penalty very seriously.”
One Mile at a Time asks “Why create policies that won’t be enforced?” and then concludes that this approach is reasonable. I think there are several reasons,
- The policy is still being enforced at the gate, and that will weed out most people who won’t wear masks. Sure someone might tire of it and take it off inflight, but anyone making a stand on principle isn’t likely to relax the principle prior to boarding (and the principle isn’t likely to be that masks are ok on the ground but not in the air).
- Even without a penalty inflight most people will wear masks. There’s a social shaming aspect to it. That doesn’t get everyone in line but it certainly gets well north of 90%.
- Diverting isn’t better, forcing everyone who is wearing a mask to spend additional hours stuck in a metal tube with other passengers. From a comparative risk in spreading the virus perspective it’s better not to divert over a mask confrontation.
Mask wearing isn’t a panacea, especially since most people don’t have access to respirator masks. There are plenty of Chinese and South Korean KN95 and KF94 masks available, that don’t take PPE supplies away from hospitals. The challenge is that many of these aren’t genuine. ‘Real’ disposable respirator masks cost at least $3 apiece at this point, however not all $3 masks are real.
Nonetheless they provide some measure of protection, limiting the spread somewhat when someone speaks, sneezes, or coughs. And this is important when the virus spreads asymptomatically or pre-symptomatically. Government temperature checks aren’t going to help much and may be counterproductive.