Do your kids have to wear face masks on the plane?
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Since May, U.S. airlines have required passengers to wear face coverings.
But what started as a rule with exceptions for travelers who said they had certain medical conditions or for “young children” has become much more airtight. Now, the answer is likely yes: Your child has to wear a face mask when flying.
Now, heading into the holiday travel season, most U.S. airlines are no longer blocking middle seats, but still 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, now 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 The Washington Post, by late October, nearly 1,000 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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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.
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 generally the rule with most airlines.
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.
Airline face mask requirements for children
So, what does this all mean for children when flying across the country or beyond?
While this could change, there are currently no federal government or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) directives regarding face masks to turn to for guidance, but here’s what the individual airlines have to say regarding children and face masks.
American Airlines requires passengers 2 and older to wear a well-secured cloth covering or mask that fits snugly against the face and covers an individual’s nose and mouth. It must be made of a 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.
Face coverings can only be briefly removed while the customer is eating or drinking. 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 and young children who cannot maintain a face covering are exempt from the mask requirement.
Unaccompanied minors who cannot safely wear a mask due to a health condition or disability will be required to complete a pre-travel clearance at check-in. Delta does allow people with actual underlying conditions that prevent mask-wearing to complete a ‘Clearance-to-Fly’ process prior to departure at the airport. This is said to take over an hour, so allow extra time at the airport.
On Delta, plastic face shields may be used in addition to a mask but are not approved mask replacements. Any mask with an exhaust valve is not approved as an acceptable face mask for customers traveling on any Delta-operated flight.
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. The only exception is 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 with vents, valves or mesh material; and face shields (without also using a face covering) are not acceptable.
Frontier is also conducting touchless temperature screenings at the gate. All passengers (and crew) must have a temperature below 100.4 degrees to board.
Hawaiian Airlines guests are required to wear a face mask or covering over the mouth and nose while boarding, through the duration of the flight and while deplaning at their destination.
Masks with vents or valves, made of mesh or obviously transparent material will not be considered acceptable forms of face coverings. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from the policy.
Travelers who are unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition or disability will be required to complete an assessment with a medical professional by phone at the airport. As with Delta, this may take more than an hour at the airport, so plan accordingly.
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.
Approved face covering on JetBlue should include multiple layers of fabric that fits 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.
Customers are required to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth at all times during their Southwest travel experience. Travelers are strongly encouraged to bring their own hand sanitizer and face covering. A well-secured cloth or mask that fits snugly against the face, covers the nose and mouth and is secured under the chin will be accepted.
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.
The only exceptions to the mask rules on Southwest are for children under the age of 2. No other exemptions are available.
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.
Any other guest who is unable to wear an appropriate face covering for any reason, including medical reasons, will not be permitted to travel at this time.
Face coverings may be removed only 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.
On United, all travelers over the age of 2 are required to wear face coverings 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.
While the wording may be a bit confusing, we can confirm that masks are required as soon as you turn 2 on United. Think of it how kids ages 2 and up are required to have their own seat and cannot be lap infants.
Face coverings may not have vents or openings and should fully cover the nose and mouth. A face shield alone does not count as a face covering.
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 standard requirement when flying in the U.S.
What still varies a bit is whether all children ages 2 and up require a mask (just as all children ages 2 and up require a paid seat) or whether the airline also has a more nebulous “young child” exemption to go along with an age. Right now, Delta leaves the most wiggle room in its policy for “young children who cannot maintain a face covering.”
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.
During my two pandemic-era trips to Disney World, I saw countless toddlers successfully wearing face masks, even in the Orlando heat.
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 adult sizes. Child-size N95 masks are still harder to find, though they are beginning to become available online.
Otherwise, there are still a wide variety of face masks you can choose from. Multilayer cloth and even disposable masks are still the currently recommended solutions for use while in flight. 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.
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
Alex and Nova makes 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.
These have become my favorite 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.
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.
Featured image courtesy of narvikk/Getty Images
Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen
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