The Risky Battle to Keep Masks on When the Plane’s Wheels Go Up

flight attendants, Dulles Airport
A flight attendant wearing a protective mask and gloves tows her luggage at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, VA, on March 18, 2020. Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr
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As an ex-flight attendant, I do not envy the battles my former colleagues are facing in the mid-air fight against the spread of the coronavirus. In the US alone, hundreds of flight attendants represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA have contracted COVID-19 and at least 10 have died AFA-CWA’s international president Sara Nelson said in June. 

In early March, the union representing American Airlines flight attendants said at least 100 of its members had already tested positive for the virus. 

During my decade in the air, a big part of my job involved reminding passengers to turn off their phones and remove their earphones before take off. While most passengers complied, I was often met with an annoyed eye-roll or an obnoxious “Why?” These days, playing the mask police is taking precedence over enforcing cell phone rules. 

And even with Mr. Trump now saying that wearing a face mask is “patriotic,” the White House’s stance against any mandatory face mask rules has left each airline to fend for itself. 

Mask rules are similar for most airlines: passengers must wear face covering during the flight, with the exception of infants, passengers with medical conditions that cause breathing problems, and those who are eating or drinking. 

But, as with turning off cell phones, some passengers think they have found clever ways to defy the rules. Crew members find them dangerous and feel stressed and indignant as their health and safety are being threatened by intransigent passengers. 

Flight crews are essential personnel who may interact with hundreds or even thousands of passengers each day. Their safety and passengers’ safety depends on compliance with mask rules. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most airlines around the world have implemented face-covering policies. But once the flight takes off, so do many masks.

In a private Facebook group seen by WhoWhatWhy, frustrated flight attendants are sharing their experiences with non-complying passengers. 

There was the passenger who took three hours to eat a cookie while arguing he did not have to wear a mask when eating. 

Another tried to nurse an extra-large Starbucks coffee all flight to avoid putting on a mask.

Advocates against mask-wearing have even encouraged passengers to purchase fraudulent medical notes available online in case airline employees ask for proof of a medical condition when not wearing a mask. 

Enforcement is just part of a bigger issue. In my years as a flight attendant, passengers would often ask “Where’s the law that says I can’t do this?” For US flight attendants, that question is problematic when it comes to masks. 

President Trump’s politicization of face masks has made it much more difficult for airlines and other industries to pursue policies that make the most sense from a health perspective. And even with Mr. Trump now saying that wearing a face mask is “patriotic,” the White House’s stance against any mandatory face mask rules has left each airline to fend for itself. 

Donald Trump

President Donald J. Trump participates in a tour on July 27, 2020, at the Bioprocess Innovation Center at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies in Morrisville, NC. Photo credit: The White House / Flickr

“The mask policies were so important,” Nelson told NBC News. “This is the most critical item that will help limit the risk of the spread of the virus.” 

Sometimes, the lines between compliance and non-compliance become blurred onboard. Let’s consider the cookie-milking passenger and the options the crew has to handle the situation. What happens when a passenger indirectly refuses to follow the mask rule after repeated demands? Essentially, flight attendants have two choices: to enforce the policy or to turn a blind eye. 

The lack of consistency might be coming from mixed messaging, starting with confusion emanating from the federal government that has led to companies tiptoeing around the issue.

When it comes to enforcing the policy, airlines have set consequences for staff to deal with passengers who don’t follow mask rules. Delta has put at least 100 passengers on its no-fly list after they refused to wear a mask onboard – including Navy SEAL Robert J. O’Neill, after he posted a now-deleted tweet saying he didn’t want to wear a mask, according to the Washington Times

On United, passengers could receive an In-Flight Mask policy reminder card. But after repeated offenses, flight attendants can file a flight incident report, “which will initiate a formal review process” and an investigation by the security team, according to the company. Many airlines also carry warning cards informing disruptive passengers they could be met by authorities upon landing.  

Flight attendant unions insist that implementing a standardized system, which makes clear that penalties will escalate, is the best way to ensure that passengers have uniform expectations about the seriousness of enforcement. Notice to violators needs to be clear, they argue.

“It is absurd that the FAA has not done this yet, that [the Department of Transportation] has not taken a leadership role here,” Nelson told NBC News. “We have to be more clear about how people are supposed to wear those masks. What type of mask etiquette they’re supposed to practice when they take a drink or go to eat something and that will keep us the most safe.”

The strain of enforcement is wearing down flight crews. Some passengers have reported on social media that flight attendants were not always enforcing their airline’s mask policies. The lack of consistency surrounding masks brings me to the second choice flight attendants can make: turning a blind eye. 

During a long flight or after a particularly challenging day, the last thing flight attendants want to do is argue with passengers at least I didn’t. So, I can understand how a flight attendant could choose to simply ignore a passenger eating the same cookie for hours or nursing an extra-large drink all flight. 

But even the individual problem passenger may not be the main obstacle. The lack of consistency might be coming from mixed messaging, starting with confusion emanating from the federal government that has led to companies tiptoeing around the issue. Last month, Reuters reported that while most airlines were announcing new face-covering policies, crew members from Delta, United, and American Airlines were told by their employers these policies were to be encouraged rather than enforced. 

Since then, Airlines for America — an industry trade organization representing the leading US airlines, including Delta, United, and American — announced its member airlines would start “vigorously enforcing mask policies” in an attempt to set the record straight. Southwest has also updated its mask policy, requiring all passengers over two years old to wear a face-covering without exception. 

When a sick passenger sneezes or coughs without wearing a face mask, infectious droplets can travel to up to seven rows ahead, thus potentially infecting other passengers regardless of the capacity of the air filtration system on board.

Now that big retailers, including Walmart and Target and even Winn-Dixie, have begun enforcing mask-wearing, passengers may become more cooperative in spite of the lack of laws mandating the protection of crew and passengers.

While countries like Canada implemented federal requirements for masks onboard planes in April, the US government has been reluctant to do the same. Flight attendant unions have been urging the Department of Transportation to mandate masks onboard since the beginning of the pandemic.

In a report released in July, the US Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Health and Human Services outlined a set of recommendations for airlines and airports in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19 onboard. The document, called Runway to Recovery, suggests that airlines implement face-covering rules, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, and encourages social distancing onboard whenever possible. 

“It is particularly important when physical distancing is not achieved on a flight … that crew members actively ensure passengers on board an aircraft adhere, at all times, to all other preventive measures, including wearing of masks or cloth face coverings, strict hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette,” the report states. 

But the federal recommendations place the burden of compliance on air carriers and by default make flight attendants the cops on the beat. “The aviation industry’s task is to implement measures that are effective in minimizing the risk of virus transmission in air travel, thus restoring confidence that the system does not threaten personal or public health,” the report says. 

Flight Attendant, cleaning

Flight Attendants are under a lot of stress during the pandemic. They have to take extra measures to keep the cabin clean and safe for passengers. Photo credit: Delta News Hub / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Flight attendant unions welcome the gesture but argue that without a clear federal mandate on masks that outlines strict policies and consequences, both passengers and crew are in danger. “We absolutely need that backing from the federal government,” Nelson told NBC News. 

In a statement, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) says it will continue to push on the federal government “to bring together regulatory agencies, public health experts, and aviation stakeholders to develop science-based, federally mandated safety procedures to limit the transmission of COVID-19 and ensure safety and consistency across the aviation industry.”

False Sense of Security?

Most major airlines, including those represented by Airlines for America, have aircraft equipped with high-efficiency HEPA filters. For that reason, “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights” according to the CDC

While HEPA filters do help reduce the spread of COVID-19 on planes, researchers in a 2003 FAA-funded study who looked at the likelihood of spreading the SARS virus onboard found that when a sick passenger sneezes or coughs without wearing a face mask, infectious droplets can travel to up to seven rows ahead, thus potentially infecting other passengers regardless of the capacity of the air filtration system on board.  

“The variation in risk might be influenced by the duration of the flight, the stage of illness, the type of air-ventilation system in use, the size of the aircraft, and the number of infected persons on board,” according to another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

While Delta and Southwest will continue to block middle seats until the fall, other air carriers, like American Airlines and Air Canada, have started flying at full capacity. 

Could a Pandemic Spur the Resurgence of Labor Unions?

Solutions? 

While some US-based airlines are starting to beef up their compliance tactics like the Delta flight that returned to the gate to offload two passengers who defied the mask rule they may need to take some cues from other countries and airlines abroad, some of which are imposing high fines to incentivize passengers to comply with mask rules. The Canadian government’s Transport Canada, for instance, issued a $5,000 fine to a traveler who repeatedly refused to wear a mask on board an Air Canada flight. 

Taking the burden of enforcement away from flight attendants, Turkish Airlines introduced Hygiene Experts on board its flights. These designated crew members are strictly responsible for ensuring that passengers respect the mandatory mask rules. Their tasks include ensuring passengers replace their masks every four hours and that they eat at separate times. 

Right now, the situation in the United States is only getting worse, with a number of Republican governors, such as Brian Kemp in Georgia, Ron DeSantis in Florida, Greg Abbott in Texas, and Doug Ducey in Arizona encouraging the notion that wearing a mask is a political question involving one’s conception of personal liberty. As the pandemic rages in their states, some of them have come around to the idea that wearing masks may help. But the damage is already done, and flight crews are now at greater risk as people try to flee pandemic hotspots by hopping on flights. 

Democratic governors such as Andrew Cuomo in New York and Ned Lamont of Connecticut, who saw great benefit from strict mask policies, are now trying to stop out-of-staters from driving up infection rates again. At Bradley International Airport, for instance, passengers on flights from more than a dozen southern states are being instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days after they reach their destinations in Connecticut. 

Differing policies by the federal, state, and local governments are fracturing what health experts say is needed most a comprehensive and uniform national approach. Until that happens, flight crews like doctors, nurses, and nursing home staff are on the front lines with their safety dependent on the willingness of the passengers to protect themselves and others.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Bernal Saborio / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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