Yesterday I took a five hour American Airlines flight from Miami to Las Vegas, which was my first flight in 99 days.
I have so many thoughts about the current state of the air travel experience, but first wanted to dedicate a post specifically to some observations about face mask usage, because this is a big point of concern and confusion for many people considering traveling at the moment.
Long story short — absolutely don’t expect that everyone seated near you will be wearing their mask responsibly, even with airlines stepping up enforcement.
Airlines have face mask policies they can’t enforce
I recently wrote about the challenges with airline face mask policies:
- While most airlines (with the exception of Allegiant Air) require passengers to wear face masks, until this week most US airlines have told crews to not actually enforce the policy
- This is a problem because wearing a face mask is just as much about other peoples’ safety as it is about your own safety
- Airlines have promoted that face masks are “required,” so reasonable people depend on that being the case, and then are frustrated when they find people near them not wearing masks
- Passengers with health conditions don’t have to wear masks, and there’s no requirement to “prove” your condition; we’re seeing some people claim to have health conditions simply because they don’t feel like wearing masks
- As of this week some airlines have stepped up enforcement of this policy, even threatening to ban passengers who don’t wear masks, but this is unfortunately (mostly) unenforceable
My observations about people wearing face masks
Based on my flight yesterday from Miami to Las Vegas, what did I notice at the airport and onboard our flight? I have a few different thoughts:
Most people were being reasonable and following rules
Most people are on the same page. That’s what I was hoping, though I also wondered if it would actually be the case. We want to travel safely, and we recognize that wearing masks is in everyone’s best interest. I’d say somewhere around 75% of people I saw were on the same page.
If anything, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of children I saw wearing face masks (since they’re not required to do so by most airlines), and also the number of people wearing both face masks and face shields.
Very different face mask experiences at two airports
At airports not nearly as many people were wearing masks as on planes. That’s not surprising since:
- Face masks are required onboard most airlines, but are generally only encouraged at airports
- There are more opportunities for physical distancing at airports than on planes
A few things stood out at the airport:
- I was surprised by how many American Airlines mechanics and ramp workers I saw walking around the terminal not wearing masks; what a bad example that sets, especially in uniform
- There was such a massive disparity in face mask usage in Miami and Las Vegas; at Miami Airport a vast majority of people were wearing face masks, while at Las Vegas Airport a vast majority of people weren’t
I have a lot more to say about face mask usage after we left the airport in Las Vegas, because I was shocked.
The real problem with onboard face mask rules
From my seat I saw two people getting onto the plane without face masks on. They both had them in their hands, so I’m guessing they wore them for the gate agent and then immediately took them off.
Personally what I found most disappointing was how many people weren’t wearing masks throughout the flight. I’d say at any given point at least a quarter of passengers either weren’t wearing masks at all, or weren’t wearing them correctly. This comes down to a couple of gray areas:
- Passengers have to wear face coverings, but there’s limited guidance as to how they have to be worn; I saw a lot of people with masks only covering their mouth and not their nose, and I also saw a lot of people with their mask simply strapped around their chin, and one person even used it as an eyeshade
- Passengers are told they can take their masks off when consuming food and drinks; some people took this to the extreme and had a bottle of water on their tray that they “enjoyed” for an hour without their mask on
Flight attendants have an impossible job
I overhead several passengers report other passengers to flight attendants:
- Passengers are right to expect that others around them wear face masks
- At the same time, the flight attendants are put in a very uncomfortable, and arguably impossible, enforcement position
I totally support them enforcing policies, but the problem was that these complaints primarily involved people not wearing masks while having a drink or snack on their tray for extended periods. I don’t envy the situation that flight attendants are in.
Should passengers take situations into their own hands?
Under normal circumstances I never recommend escalating anything at an airport or on an airplane. I’m still not really suggesting that. However, perhaps a bit of
shaming polite nudging wouldn’t be out of place?
There are topics on which reasonable people can disagree. Face mask usage in crowded spaces like planes shouldn’t be one of those. If you don’t have an actual health condition that prevents you from wearing a face mask then you absolutely should wear one when physical distancing isn’t possible (and yes, this includes being crammed into a plane like sardines).
The sad part is that the irresponsible jerks who aren’t wearing masks aren’t necessarily endangering themselves, but much more importantly are selfishly endangering others.
And this leads me to a question for you guys — to what extent should we encourage other passengers to wear face masks? For example:
- A guy near us in the security line wasn’t wearing a mask, and clearly wasn’t concerned about physical distancing. I was very close to asking him if he needed a mask, or something, but restrained myself.
- A person seated across from us boarded with a mask but then once we leveled off, took it off for quite a while. Ford stared at her studiously for a few moments, and then she suddenly put her mask back on.
Is there a safe way that we can try to either encourage others to wear masks on planes, either through asking nicely or guilting?
- Flight attendants in many cases aren’t fully allowed to enforce the rules
- Is there value in asking people to please put on masks because you’re uncomfortable?
I’m not really sure what to make of the face mask usage I saw at the airport and on planes yesterday. Most people were being responsible, while some clearly weren’t. Airlines have created face mask policies that can’t reasonably be enforced, and some people will find any way to avoid wearing a mask, it seems.
Is there a way that we as passengers can encourage others to wear masks? Should we just politely ask them directly if they could put on a mask? Is there a better solution I’m missing?