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American Airlines, Southwest now overtake Delta for the strictest mask policy in the US

July 24, 2020
5 min read
Southwest 737-700 takeoff
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Keeping up with airlines' mask policy updates isn't straightforward.

Over the past few months, we've seen carriers go from recommending masks to requiring them for employees. Then passengers were required to wear them, too.

But that's not all. Enforcing the rules isn't easy either. For whatever reason, some passengers don't want to wear masks. Some might state they have a medical condition that excuses them from wearing a mask.

On two U.S. airlines, that's no longer going to fly.

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American Airlines, Southwest have newly strengthened mask policies

Both American and Southwest announced that they're going to require masks throughout the end-to-end travel journey. This includes at check-in, in lounges, onboard and at baggage claim.

This comes after United announced a similar policy on Wednesday morning (July 22).

In addition, all three carriers will require masks to be worn by children two years or older.

But American and Southwest break from the rest of the pack regarding medical exemptions. Both carriers are eliminating all exceptions to the mask-wearing rule (aside from being an infant). That means that even those with a valid medical condition can't fly American or Southwest without a mask.

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(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Some may claim that this is illegal. After all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on a medical condition. However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has already asserted its position on this.

“The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations,” the DOJ said in a statement last month.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Air Carrier Access Act states that "airlines may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability. Airlines may exclude anyone from a flight if carrying the person would be inimical to the safety of the flight."

Medical experts say that not wearing a mask poses a safety threat to those around you. Even if you've got a medical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, based on this act, you can legally be denied boarding.

Related: This is what it's like to travel with a disability in the United States

How it compares to Delta

No other airline has gone as far as AA or Southwest... yet.

The closest we've seen is Delta. We broke the news last week that the Atlanta-based carrier would begin requiring a "Clearance-to-Fly" exam for those looking to fly without a mask. You need to show up at the airport at least an hour earlier than normal for a virtual consultation with one of Delta's doctors.

After explaining your condition, the doctor will decide if you're allowed to fly without a mask.

(Photo courtesy of Delta)

Just last week, the idea of needing to speak to an airline's doctors before boarding sounded quite strict. And I wasn't at all surprised that Delta, the carrier that's been capping the capacity of all its flights since April 8, introduced such a policy.

But just a few days later, Delta's has seen its rivals go one step further. Not only will AA and Southwest bar anti-maskers, but they're also the strictest about face coverings for young children. Delta continues to exempt young children from the requirement, though it's possible they'll match the more restrictive policies of its competitors.

Related: Delta has banned more than 100 passengers for not wearing a mask

What's the future of the mask mandate?

At this point, it seems like the airlines are competing for the strictest mask requirement. We've seen countless updates to the policies over the last three months, with each airline basically copying the others.

There's no end in sight.

However, a federally-mandated mask requirement on airplanes and in airports could be a solution. It'd be easier for the customer to understand the policy, and remove the rule-making burden from the carriers.

(Photo courtesy of United)

Further, airlines would no longer have to play the uncomfortable role of the middle man. The mandate could spell out a fine and enforcement action for rule-breakers, as well as define exactly what to do if you have a medical exception. Airlines could then reference the FAA policy to those who don’t wear a mask.

Related: Why we need a federal mandate on masks now more than ever

Bottom line

Wearing a mask has become the latest travel essential.

On American and Southwest, even children above the age of two have to wear one too. Plus, on these carriers, there are no longer any medical exemptions — if you can't wear a mask, you won't be allowed to fly.

In fact, this policy is even more restrictive than Delta's recently strengthened policy. It's anyone's guess when these ever-changing updates will end — or perhaps the government will change its stance and allow us to cross the finish line with a federally-mandated mask mandate.