Within the past week major US airlines have introduced a policy requiring all passengers to wear face masks or some sort of face coverings on flights. While the messaging seems strong, flight attendants and pilots are being told that they shouldn’t actually enforce this rule.
Flight attendants told to inform, not enforce
The way the new policy works, airlines are allowed to deny boarding to those passengers not wearing face masks, but once passengers are onboard, it’s a different story.
Reuters shares a memo that American Airlines sent to pilots, making it clear that once onboard the plane the face mask policy becomes more lenient. The crew’s role is to inform rather than to enforce.
As the memo reads:
“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.
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.”
In a separate memo to flight attendants, American Airlines said the following:
“If the customer chooses not to comply for other reasons, please encourage them to comply, but do not escalate further.
Likewise, if a customer is frustrated by another customer’s lack of face covering, please use situational awareness to de-escalate the situation.”
Why create policies that won’t be enforced?
I’m guessing there are a couple of reasons that US airlines are basically telling crews not to enforce the rules.
First of all, I can only imagine the endless diversions that would be caused by passengers not wearing masks. This is potentially yet another point of conflict on planes.
That being said, I suspect the bigger reason for this is liability. The major airlines have exceptions so that young children and those with medical issues don’t have to wear masks.
Presumably the airlines would be opening themselves up to a lawsuit if they forced someone to put on a mask when they claim they have a medical condition.
For example, Alaska Airlines’ statement regarding exceptions for wearing masks is interesting, making it clear that people don’t have to disclose or prove the condition they have:
If a guest is exempt, how should they notify Alaska Airlines?
Guests are encouraged to communicate their exemption with an Alaska Airlines representative when they arrive at the airport. Note: In line with health privacy laws, guests are not required to disclose or prove their specific medical condition to airline employees and are asked to notify our airport staff upon boarding. Airport staff will inform the flight attendants of guests who have a medical exemption.
Understandably airlines want to avoid confrontations where passengers argue they were humiliated and scorned by the crew for not wearing a mask, claiming they have a condition. At least that’s the best logic I can come up with.
It’s not unreasonable to essentially say that the face mask rule will be enforced at the gate, while onboard the crew will provide reminders that are simply informational. At least that would be reasonable if people were reasonable.
Hopefully everyone takes the face mask requirement seriously, and we don’t see people taking off face masks inflight in order to “protest” the policy, or in order to create a viral video.