Airlines Won’t Enforce Mask Wearing Rules Inflight, But Most People Will Still Wear Masks (Thankfully)

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is great. I had to wear a mask on my flight on Friday, and it was absolutely miserable.

    Now I can wear a mask when I board, and take it off for the duration of the flight and not read my own dirty air for five hours.

    I refuse to wear a mask in public for the same reason – it’s disgusting. Both bacterially and socially. Can you imagine living in a community of people that all wear masks? It’s so disturbing to consider.

    Not supporting more medical security theater. No thanks. I have a brain.

  2. @Don…Thank you. The best part of your post? “I have a brain”. I haven’t worn a mask yet and I won’t. Everywhere I go, I ignore the “fear mask” mandates. Grocery stores, Home Depot, Target and every other place I can get into. Also, I make sure to thank every person without a mask and tell them how much I appreciate their decision to not give into the hysteria and actually activate the organ between their ears.

  3. Everyone wearing masks reduces the risk of spread of the virus. If we both wear masks and you’re asymptomatically infected and contagious, the risk of me being infected by you is drastically reduced given that there is a double layer of protection. If only I wear a mask and you’re asymptomatically infected and contagious, the risk of me being infected by you drastically increases over the above scenario since now your aerosolized COVID can directly infect me through my non-N95 mask, or through the mucous membranes in my eyes.

    The reality is that if you’re not going to wear a mask because you it’s now a politicized thing instead of a common courtesy, then there’s no real point in me wearing a mask either because I’m going to probably catch your asymptomatic COVID anyways. So either everyone wears a mask or there’s not much point in anyone wearing a mask.

    Too bad for all the old people and immunocompromised people in society. The people who feel like wearing a mask is “disgusting bacterially and socially” or succumbing to “fear mask” mandates are going to increase reproduction rate of the virus regardless. Common courtesy be damned, these geniuses will not sacrifice their inalienable rights!

  4. @Don Where do you think your “own dirty air” that is “disgusting” goes when you are not wearing a mask?

    Add to the above that your breath is possibly virus laden …..and I have to breath your output????

    Wear a mask till this is over…..unless of course you find your own “dirty” breath “bacterially disgusting” and if that’s the case please stay home.

    Wear a mask.

  5. “It’s only a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

    You mean like its been for every day of my life so far? Wow, thanks for that astute observation.

  6. You know Don is right, somewhat. A lot of people seem to think that wearing masks confers a lot of protection. They confer SOME protection, but are certainly not the security blanket some people think that they are. For example:

    Lets say there are micro droplets with coronavirus in the air. You could still inhale it through the sides of the mask, and it can infect you via your eyes. Also if the outside of the mask is contaminated, and you touch it, and then your face, you could just as easily infect yourself as if you inhaled it.

    Masks confer some protection. I don’t wear them in the supermarkets because its mostly pointless, but I would wear one on an airplane, especially a crowded one. It is more important I think to keep your hands clean.

    Also, it’t none of your business if someone else doesn’t want to wear one. Enough with the lectures.

  7. So, @Michael,

    My suggestion to you is to get yourself an N95 mask, a face shield and some gloves. When you need to remove the shield and mask for say, taking a sip of water, you should change your gloves, remove items, take a sip, change your gloves again, replace mask, replace shield and repeat. There is also the “don’t fly” option, which should make you feel much safer.

    Regardless of what you hear on the nightly news, most people are not dropping dead by opening their front doors and venturing outside their homes.

  8. Flying while there is a widespread coronavirus is inherently risky from a medical perspective, with or without masks. However, masks make it a bit safer, so I’m glad the airlines are requiring them. I hate the masks, but, out of respect for other people, I willingly wear one every time I go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or the farmers market.

  9. Timely topic. We have tkts on SW June 2 for a nonstop 3 hr flight. Both of us have preexisting conditions and are thinking a 3 day drive might be safer.
    We wear masks to protect others and depend on others’ kindness and respect to do likewise. If the people around us on our flight aren’t wearing masks, our chances of infection dramatically increase. The two weeks of spreading the virus by unknowing asymptomatic passengers is a serious danger.
    It’s sad the few aren’t willing to inconvenience themselves even when it could mean serious illness or death for others. It reminds me of the people who want to send others families’ kids off to battle while they sit at home enjoying their Freedom.
    Thank you all for your comments. It’s time for us to look at AAATripTiks.

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