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How Do Airlines Deal With Travelers Who Won’t Wear Masks?

Airlines all over the world are imposing mask rules at airports and onboard, but passengers are resisting, and getting deplaned and banned.

Passengers get into scuffles while flying all the time and their faces get plastered on social media for reasons good and bad. But what’s new these days is how often the trouble on board is about face masks. Every week, there are new headlines of passengers resisting mask rules, and are consequently being asked to deplane, or are getting banned outright.

In one bizarre incident, a fight broke out on an Allegiant Air flight to Utah when a passenger refused to wear a mask. On a Southwest flight to Dallas, a man was deplaned, but was later given a seat on another flight by the airline after he reassured them he would comply.

Since most airlines require passengers above two-years of age to wear a mask, kids need to acquiesce, too. So, when a three-year-old autistic child wouldn’t comply with the requests of the crew, all passengers were asked to deplane and the family was kicked off the flight.

Other parts of the world are facing similar situations.

In New Zealand, a passenger was met by police when the plane from Auckland landed in Napier. The passenger was wearing a mask under his nose and was asked by the crew three times to cover up—he was charged with disorderly conduct.

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In England, a woman slapped her husband who refused to wear a mask on an easyJet flight from Manchester. Another easyJet passenger in Ireland was thrown off a flight after she refused to comply and yelled “Everybody dies,” and then proceeded to cough on other passengers—she was later arrested. But the airline insists that most passengers are happy to comply. “As with all safety measures, the vast majority of customers are very understanding of the importance of following these guidelines for the safety of all customers and crew onboard. Indeed many have been very happy with the measures we have put into place and the cleanliness of the aircraft.”

Experts maintain that masks are standing between exposure and you, and airlines—that stress passenger safety above all else—are in sync with them.

Masks Are a Safety Net for Fliers

Flying may be safer than grocery shopping, a Harvard study has concluded. The ventilation system in aircrafts filters out 99% of airborne viruses. The High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters reduce the risk of transmission, and droplets of the virus are less likely to enter a body through the nose or mouth due to downward airflow.

But it’s not enough. Disinfecting planes, maintaining social distance at queues and lounges, and minimizing contact are part of the layered measures that airlines need to enforce. Mask-wearing, of course, is the safest thing passengers can do.

A study by United Airlines and the Department of Defence revealed that those who wear masks on a flight have a very low-risk of contracting COVID-19—it would take a minimum of 54 hours to be exposed to the virus if you’re sitting next to someone with COVID-19.

According to Dr. David Powell, Medical Advisor for International Air Transport Association (IATA), “The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low. With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million travelers. We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers.” These cases also occurred before face masks and social distancing measures became common, he adds.

But there is also contradictory research that suggests face covers are not fool-proof. Another study has linked 59 cases to a 7-hour flight to Ireland, where passengers wore face masks and maintained social distance. The flight was just 17% full. A woman traveling from London to Vietnam on March 1 infected 15 others (one crew member, 12 business class passengers, and two economy passengers). She was showing symptoms when she boarded the flight, and masks wearing was not mandatory then.

The CDC strongly recommends that people wear masks while flying because travel has risks. “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within six feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” the website warns.

Airlines Tighten Norms

With the travel industry hit so badly, airlines need to reassure travelers that it’s safe to fly. Reports of transmission on flights or at airports will not build confidence with travelers who are already jittery.

Italy, France, Greece, Switzerland, and Spain have strict mask rules. In India, too, passengers are required to wear a mask and observe other safety protocols or risk getting banned by the airline. Qatar Airways has mandated masks and shields, which it provides to passengers along with a sanitizer and a pair of gloves.

Airlines in the U.S. mandated masks on flights in May, but tightened policies even further in August. Most now require all passengers to wear masks at airports and onboard, and they have also set guidelines on what is allowed (masks are necessary even if you’re wearing a face shield). Some still have exemptions for those with medical issues, while others have strict no-mask, no-fly policies (except for kids under two; read the full list here). Failing to meet these requirements can cause the cancelation of tickets, deboarding, and even getting banned.

But passengers have found loopholes. In the disguise of drinking and eating, they take their masks off. People are also exempted from wearing a mask due to medical reasons, but they need to provide evidence—also something that may be used to get out of wearing masks. The issue has also become about partisan politics as President Donald Trump has been unsupportive of the medical directives, and anti-maskers have taken a cue from him. It hasn’t helped that the CDC has wavered on the issue, confusing people more.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Erring on the side of caution, airlines are cracking down on people who aren’t adhering to rules—especially in the U.S. where there are no federal laws regarding face masks. In these cases, crew members are facing resisting passengers and airlines are issuing dos and don’ts guides.

As of last October, Delta Air Lines has banned 460 people who failed to comply with their mask guidelines.

In a memo to employees, CEO Ed Bastian says, “Wearing a mask is among the simplest and most effective actions we can take to reduce transmission, which is why Delta has long required them for our customers and our people. As of this week, we’ve added 460 people to our no-fly list for refusing to comply with our mask requirement.”

As per the official figure shared by Delta, 180,000 people fly every day with them, and most are happy to wear a mask to lower the risk of transmission.

Other airlines, too, have banned people from flying and taken measures to ensure that they come out as strict and strong on the issue, including deplaning and canceling return flights.

What poses a problem for airlines and passengers is the issue with kids—they can sometimes refuse to wear a mask, or just be fussy. Families are facing the brunt of this, especially with small children who can’t be reasoned with because they don’t understand what’s going on. Many have been kicked off due to non-compliance of toddlers.

The airlines are abiding by the CDC guideline of ages two and above, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has a different take. It advises, “In general, children aged five years and under should not be required to wear masks. This advice is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance.” Now there’s a petition urging airlines to make the age requirement to five and older.

Evidently, it can’t be smooth sailing with zero-tolerance rules because there are always going to be exceptions. “Where no formal government regulation or law exists, these issues are best left to airlines to manage according to their own individual policies,” IATA points out. “Clear guidance should be provided on the limited circumstances in which an exemption might be allowed.”

Since March, the stress of travel has gone up a few notches, and then some. So if you’re traveling by air this holiday season, it’s a good idea to keep a mask handy because airlines are not offering any concessions.