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Do your kids have to wear face masks on the plane?

March 22, 2021
16 min read
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Since May 2020, U.S. airlines have required passengers to wear face coverings.

But while there are once again exceptions available for travelers who can document certain medical conditions, kids are not a wholly exempted class. Now, the answer is likely yes: Your child has to wear a face mask when flying.

Not only that -- but the "masks" they may have worn on their last flight during the pandemic may not work anymore due to some rules that changed after the mask requirement on planes became a federal mandate in 2021. For example, neck gaiters are no longer permitted on several U.S. airlines.

Heading into the spring and summer travel season, most U.S. airlines are no longer blocking middle seats, but require face coverings over the mouth and nose -- both in the airport and on the plane for all but a very small number of passengers. Generally speaking, only travelers under the age of 2 are exempt from the mask requirement, though it does vary a bit from one airline to the next.

In fact, airlines are banning passengers who do not comply with the rules. According to Business Insider, by January 2021, more than 2,500 passengers had been banned from a few major U.S. airlines for not complying with the mask mandates. And a few of those stories garnered national attention, such as when a family flying United was asked to deplane when their 2-year-old would not wear a face mask.

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(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

You may have questions about these rules, especially if you're flying with your family for the first time since the onset of the pandemic:

Do you have to wear a mask on every flight? Yes.

For the whole flight? Yes, except when actively eating or drinking.

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Even if I'm asleep on the plane? Yes.

What if my 2-year-old doesn't like masks? I know it's really hard, but, yes, that's still the rule.

What about at Disney World or Universal Orlando? Also yes -- even when it's hot.

And where do you even buy a mask for a kid? Well, we've got you covered — and keep reading for more recommendations below.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 2 and up wear face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain — and this includes airplanes. The CDC does not, however, recommend face coverings for children under the age of 2, so your babies and young toddlers are exempt from the recommendation from the CDC and also from the U.S. airlines and the federal mandate.

Airline face mask requirements for children

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

So, what does this all mean for children when flying across the country or beyond?

While each major U.S. airline has had its own rules in place for masks since May 2020, this became federal law in early 2021, which triggered some adjustments in the airlines' rules. In practice, this means a few things may have changed since your last flight when it comes to face masks. In fact, on a recent spring break flight from Colorado, I witnessed many families surprised at check-in that their children's neck gaiters would no longer suffice for an in-flight mask on that airline.

American Airlines

American Airlines requires passengers 2 and older to wear a well-secured cloth covering or mask that fits snugly to the sides of the face and covers an individual’s nose and mouth and is secured under the chin. It must be made of a two-layer material that prevents the discharge and release of respiratory droplets from a person's nose or mouth.

Face coverings with exhaust valves, or masks made with materials such as mesh or lace fabrics or that do not cover the nose and mouth are not allowed. Face shields are allowed with the addition of a face covering.

Additionally, bandanas, gaiters, balaclavas, scarves and ski masks are not considered acceptable face masks.

Face coverings can only be briefly removed while the customer is eating or drinking. It must be worn between bites or sips. You are required to wear a face covering in the airport where your trip begins, where it ends and where you connect. American asks that you bring your own face covering, though limited complimentary masks may be available at the gate.

Delta Air Lines

Face coverings are required on Delta starting in the check-in lobby and across Delta touch points, including Delta Sky Clubs, boarding gate areas, check in, jet bridges and on board the aircraft for the duration of the flight – except for a limited time while eating and drinking. Usage is also strongly encouraged in high-traffic areas, including security lines and restrooms.

On Delta, children under the age of 2 are exempt from the mask requirement.

When flying Delta, a mask or face covering should be secured to the head, including with ties or ear loops, and should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face. If gaiters are worn, they should have two layers of fabric or be folded to make two layers.

Plastic face shields or goggles may be used in addition to a mask but are not approved mask replacements. The following mask types are not approved: any mask with an exhaust valve, slits or punctures; bandanas; and scarves, ski masks and balaclavas.

Frontier

Passengers on Frontier Airlines are required to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth at Frontier ticket counters, gate areas and while on board the aircraft. There is an exception for children under the age of 2. Face coverings must fit snugly over the nose and mouth and be secured under the chin.

Open-chin triangle bandanas, face coverings containing vents, valves or mesh material, and face shields are not acceptable as face-coverings. You can wear a face shield in addition to an approved face covering.

Frontier is also conducting touchless temperature screenings at the gate. All passengers (and crew) must have a temperature below 100.4 degrees to board.

Related: TPG compared experiences flying four different U.S. airlines

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines guests are required to wear a face mask or covering over the mouth and nose at the airport, while boarding, through the duration of the flight and while deplaning at their destination.

Masks must completely cover the nose and mouth and should fit snugly against the side of the face, secured to the head with ties or ear loops. Masks with vents or valves, made of mesh or obviously transparent material will not be considered acceptable forms of face coverings.

If gaiters are worn, they should have two layers of fabric or be folded to make two layers. Cloth masks should be made with two or more layers of breathable fabric that is tightly woven (i.e., fabrics that do not let light pass through when held up to a light source). Masks should be a solid piece of material without vents, mesh, slits, exhalation valves, punctures or other obviously transparent cloth coverings.

Scarves, ski masks, balaclavas and bandannas are not acceptable forms of face masks. Face shields or goggles cannot be used in lieu of a face mask but may be used in addition to an appropriate mask.

Children under the age of 2 are exempt from the policy.

Guests must wear their masks at all times except while eating, drinking or taking oral medications for brief periods. Prolonged periods of mask removal are not permitted for eating or drinking; masks must be worn between bites and sips.

Guests who are unable to wear a face mask due to a medical condition or disability will be required to complete an assessment with a medical professional via phone at the airport. This process may take more than one hour, and your flight will not be held. Please notify a Guest Services Agent as soon as you are ready to complete the medical assessment.

Related: What it's like to fly Hawaiian Airlines right now

JetBlue

Customers ages 2 and up are required to wear a face-covering over their nose and mouth throughout their journey, including during check-in, boarding, while in flight, while deplaning and in the terminal except for brief periods while eating or drinking. There are no face-covering exemptions on JetBlue other than for passengers under 2 years of age.

Masks with vents or exhalation valves are not permitted. JetBlue also restricts the use of the following recreational items and personal protective equipment on all flights:

  • Personal face/body tents or pods
  • Personal air purifiers/refreshers or ozone generators
  • Masks connected to tubing or battery-operated filters
  • Any device that is prohibited by federal regulation or could put others at risk
  • Plastic face shields may be worn in addition to a face mask but not in place of one.

Approved face coverings on JetBlue should include multiple layers of fabric that fit snugly against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops and completely cover the nose and mouth. Face coverings cannot have vents or exhalation valves.

Southwest Airlines

Customers are required to wear a mask that completely covers the nose and mouth, secured to the head with ties, ear loops or elastic bands that go behind the head and fits snugly against the side of the face throughout their Southwest travel experience.

Cloth masks should be made with two or more layers of breathable fabric that is tightly woven (i.e., fabrics that do not let light pass through when held up to a light source). Neck gaiters (also called multi-bands) may be worn as masks so long as they have two layers of fabric or may be folded to make two layers and cover the nose and mouth and are secured under the chin.

Some masks that are not accepted include those with holes, including exhalation valves or masks made of materials like mesh or lace fabrics; and face coverings that cannot be secured under the chin, including bandanas and face shields. Face shields may be worn in addition to face coverings, but not in place of face coverings.

Neck gaiters may be worn as face coverings so long as they cover the nose and mouth and are secured under the chin.

Children under the age of 2 are exempt from the mask policy on Southwest. Bandanas, scarves, ski masks, balaclavas or shirt or sweater collars (e.g., turtleneck collars) pulled up over the mouth and nose are not acceptable as face masks.

Related: What to expect on your next Southwest Airlines flight

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines requires appropriate face coverings during the entire journey. This includes while at the airport, on the jet bridge and on board the aircraft. The only exception to this policy is for children under the age of 2.

Face coverings may be removed only briefly while eating, drinking or taking medication — when done, face coverings must be repositioned immediately.

All face coverings must fit snugly cover the nose and mouth and be secure under the chin and have at least two layers of fabric (such as a disposable nonmedical face mask, or multilayered cloth face covering).

Open-chin triangle bandanas; face coverings containing valves or mesh material; and face shields are not considered appropriate face coverings. Face shields may be worn in addition to a face covering, but are not approved as a face covering replacement.

United

On United travelers over the age of 2 are required to wear face coverings without vents or openings during the entire flight, in the airport, including at United customer service counters and kiosks, United Club locations, at the gate and in the baggage claim areas.

A face shield alone does not count as a face covering and bandanas are also not permitted. I do not see on United's site where neck gaiters are disallowed, however, this was the case on my recent United flight.

While you can remove your face covering briefly to eat or drink on United, you must immediately put it back on afterward.

What if my airline isn't mentioned?

Check your airline's website directly for the most up-to-date information, but at this point, masks are a federal requirement when flying in the U.S.

Related: How coronavirus can change the future of travel

How to get your children to wear a mask on the plane

Remember, children under 2 shouldn't wear a mask, according to the CDC. But those who have recently turned 2, or who are slightly older, may still have a hard time cooperating with face masks at first.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help your child become more comfortable with a face mask on the plane and beyond.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends putting a mask on a favorite stuffed animal, decorating the mask or wearing masks while looking in the mirror to normalize the experience. Seeing parents and older siblings wearing masks will also help with this.

Of course, simply practicing wearing a mask at home will likely help kids wear it in less familiar situations.

(Featured image by narvikk/Getty Images)

During my two pandemic-era trips to Disney World, I saw countless toddlers successfully wearing face masks, even in the Orlando heat.

Related: Where you can buy face masks for travel right now

KidsHealth recommends giving your child time to get familiar with the mask and using simple words to explain why people are wearing them.

Nathan Richardson, executive vice president at TPG, says to "lead by example and don't negotiate." It may sound a little harsh, he says, but it's necessary.

Where to find a child-sized face mask

At first, hospital-grade face masks such as N95 respirators were in short supply, but they are more readily available now in both adult and child sizes. Child-size KN95 masks are also available online. I purchased a pack for my 5-year-old via Vida Health.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Otherwise, there are still a wide variety of cloth face masks you can choose from. Luckily, many retailers make child-sized or child-friendly face masks.

The AAP says pleated masks with elastic are likely to work best for children, but it's important to make sure you have the right size. While adult masks are usually 6 by 12 inches, a child-sized mask measuring 5 by 10 inches might still be too large for young children. You'll want to find one that's the right size for your kid's face and adjust it to make sure it's secure.

Here are some of our favorite masks for kids.

Disney

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Your kids will no doubt love Disney's face masks, featuring prints with favorite characters ranging from Mickey to baby Yoda and Disney princesses.

You can order a four-pack for $19.99 or a two-pack for $11.99 on Disney’s website. Be aware, small masks measure about 4.5 by 2.5 inches (or 4.5 by 4.5 inches when the mask pleats are stretched) so that size is best for a very young child -- like a 2- or 3-year-old.

By 4 years of age, your child likely needs a youth medium-sized Disney mask. Tweens, teens and adults need an adult large. Adults with a larger face size will need an extra large. My 10-year-old and I (pictured above) are both wearing large masks.

Alex and Nova

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Alex and Nova make great, soft masks for travelers with the smallest faces. Youth masks are designed for kids ages 3 to 10, and measure about 4.5 by 9.8 inches.

Pictured above is a small Alex and Nova mask, size 2 to 4.

Joah Love

Child mask from Joah Love (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

These have become my favorite cloth masks for both kids and adults.

Joah Love sells masks for kids ages 2 to 6 years old (4 by 4.75 inches) with adjustable ear straps. For older kids, the brand recommends a small/medium mask that measures 5.75 by 6.25 inches. They also make masks that hang around your neck when not in use, such as when eating or drinking.

Bottom line

Only you can make the very personal decision about when it's the right time for your family to fly again — while also considering medical recommendations, relevant travel bans and quarantine restrictions. And be sure to brush up on the new inflight mask requirements before heading to the airport.

Keep in mind that, while most U.S. airlines have relatively broad definitions of what counts as a mask (as long as your nose and mouth are covered), if you're flying to somewhere such as Disney the restrictions may be tighter and may ban coverings such as neck gators pulled up above the nose. So, check all the restrictions carefully as they can change.

But the bottom line, for now, is that across the U.S., all major airlines are requiring masks, and most are specifically mandating them for all kids ages 2 and older.

Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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