Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rule of wearing a mask in public has not been straight-forward or clear-cut.
In summer last year, Airlines for America, the trade group for the major U.S. airlines, announced voluntary health-related policies. These included an industry-wide requirement that every passenger must bring a face covering and wear it at the airport, on the jet bridge and onboard the aircraft.
Those who fail to comply with the rules may be grounded, but even then, it is up to each carrier to resolve the issue according to its policies.
Subsequently the legal basis for enforcing mask requirements was the Federal Aviation Administration regulations which say that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
This policy was applied until, on February 2nd this year, a federal law was put in place which requires airline passengers to wear a face covering.
In spite of this newly implemented law, some travellers have been determined to fly without a mask. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have received over 1,300 unruly-passenger reports in what it describes as a “disturbing increase” in the number of these reports being submitted. In 2019 this figure was just 142.
These incidents were largely caused by passengers refusing to wear masks.
What’s Happening in the Sky?
Over 4,000 passengers have been banned in the last year as a result of not following mask-protocol.
In particular, the FAA has set its sights on four especially aggressive fliers, with one owing $30,000 in penalties as a result of failing to comply with mask laws.
Another passenger caused such a scene on a JetBlue flight to New York from the Dominican Republic that the pilot was forced to turn the plane around. Upon boarding, the individual became increasingly irate after being asked numerous times by flight attendants to wear her mask. She soon started pelting food and empty beer bottles at the cabin crew, before scratching one flight attendant’s hand. The FAA recommended a fine of $32,000 for the unhinged woman.
Nor do the airlines offer special treatment to the rich and famous. Last month, Alaska Airlines suspended a state senator from its flights for violating mask policies. Lora Reinbold, a Republican lawmaker, was captured on video arguing with airport employees about the mask rules which were in place. She was subsequently banned from the airline, despite it being one of the only ways for her to the state senate in Juneau from her home in Anchorage.
The FAA have also spoken of an incident involving a male passenger who refused to wear a face mask over his nose and mouth after being asked by a flight attendant. He became combative and used offensive language when a second member of staff told him the face mask was a requirement. After being ordered to leave the plane, the passenger hit a member of staff with his bag, causing officials to recommend a $16,500 fine for the man.
Ordeals similar to this caused an Alaska Airlines flight attendant to resign.
“It has been an exhausting time for all the employees who are just trying to do their job according to the company’s policies. The constant arguing and pushbacks from guests, it’s ridiculous,” she said.
What Is Being Done To Protect Airline Staff?
The administrator of the FAA has said that “We will not tolerate interfering with a flight crew and the performance of their safety duties. Period.”
Their zero-tolerance policy is hoped to help completely reduce the number of these instances occurring, with fines up to $35,000 and possible jail time for passengers who interfere with or assault flight attendants.
To add, last month saw the Transport Security Administration extend a legal requirement for airline passengers to wear masks on commercial flights until at least September 13.
Delta have also introduced an update to their SkyMiles programme to prevent such behaviour and protect their staff. If members insult or threaten Delta employees, if they use excessive or profane language or intentionally destruct Delta property then travelers could be banned from the program. The airline have also threatened rude passengers with lifetime bans.
In a statement, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian said that respect and civility are of the greatest importance to the airline.
“Please know that respect and civility to others on our planes, at our airports, in our workplaces, and in our society – even when we have differences of opinion – have always been a requirement for our people and our customers. Those who refuse to display basic civility to our people or their fellow travellers are not welcome on Delta.”
American and United Airlines have implemented similar policies, pledging to ban passengers from future flights if they refuse to wear a mask.
Is This Enough?
A statement released by Allegiant said that the new rules are being largely followed by passengers, helping to protect both air crew and fellow travellers on board.
“With the federal mandate for air travel, and our face covering policy designed to ensure to the greatest degree that issues are addressed on the ground and potential violators do not board an aircraft, we find that the great majority comply. For the most part, those few who may need a reminder in flight also comply,” The statement said.
General compliance with the law is as good as it is likely to get, with the threat of being permanently banned from an airline acceptable to scare off any potential mask-rage rule-breakers.