Airlines add new rules as call for masks on planes gets louder
There are still a lot of unknowns about the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. There isn't conclusive evidence yet about whether having the disease gives a person future immunity, or even exactly how it's spread: droplets from coughs or sneezes? Yes. Aerosolized particles? Unclear.
Health experts however, are coming to a consensus that some basic protective measures like washing your hands regularly or wearing a face mask when you're in public can slow the spread of the disease, even if they're not foolproof methods to avoid infection.
To that end, stakeholders across the airline industry seem to be coming to a consensus: Both airline employees and passengers should have to take some of those simple steps like wearing a mask while traveling. On Monday night, several airlines announced new policies around personal protective equipment.
JetBlue said it would require all passengers to wear face masks beginning May 4 and American Airlines said it would begin providing masks and sanitizing products to passengers starting in early May. Delta announced that all of its employees would be required to wear masks while on duty as of Tuesday, following a similar announcement by United last week, though Delta did not outline a specific face covering policy for passengers.
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The airlines' announcements come amid a rising chorus of calls from unions and other industry advocacy groups to enact more public health measures on airplanes during the pandemic.
In an open letter to the secretaries of the U.S. departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services last week, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called on regulators to make many of these measures mandatory across the industry.
In an interview with TPG prior to the Monday night announcements, Nelson said it would provide employees and passengers on every airline the most possible protection if the government instituted a blanket policy requiring masks for all travelers.
"The letter that we sent is a culmination of the evolving information, talks that we’ve had both with airlines and government," she said. “Certainly airlines could make it a requirement to fly on their planes, but it’s a heck of a lot cleaner if the government’s doing it, and more clear.”
She said the lack of a federal policy means airlines are left to respond to the pandemic on their own. That situation is reflected by the patchwork of policies at various airlines, which can be confusing for passengers and worrying for employees at carriers with less stringent rules.
Nelson added that, in her view, the situation at the airlines reflects the broader national struggle to respond to the outbreak amid conflicting messages from different levels of government and industry.
Related: The coronavirus pandemic could change how we travel.
“There has not been an orderly consistent way that we’re approaching this as a country. When you don’t have a common set of facts for the issue that you’re dealing with, it makes it impossible to get at the problem and start to put solutions in place," Nelson said.
The inconsistent and quickly changing policies have meant that, even amid a historic drop in traveler demand, some planes have scenes onboard as if the summer travel season was about to hit its stride.
Over the weekend, Nelson posted a photo on Twitter of passengers on a crowded flight, with few people wearing masks.
Some airlines have instituted social distancing practices like blocking middle seats in addition to their new rules around masks, but Nelson said the patchwork of policies is ineffective against the virus and puts aviation workers in danger.
“If you have a blocked middle seat and everyone onboard has a mask and they hand out hand sanitizer at the gate," it can help alleviate the aviation industry's role in the spread of COVID. But that doesn't work if those rules are not enforced, Nelson added.
She also noted that airlines are seeing a slight rebound in passenger numbers, based on TSA screening data, as states begin to reopen.
Nelson acknowledged, though, that it's been a difficult time in the airline business and that many of these issues are beyond the control of carriers.
“I don’t want to fault airlines too much, this is all happening so fast," she said. “At one point it wasn’t really clear if the airline industry was going to collapse or not.”
Related: U.S. carriers signal slow recovery with United Airlines planning to cut June flying by 90%.
Other industry stakeholders, like representatives from the Air Line Pilots Association and Flyers Rights, a consumer advocacy group, have also called on regulators to mandate protective equipment on aircraft.
Henry Harteveldt, president of travel analysis firm Atmosphere Research, is being proven prescient. He previously told TPG that it seems likely that passengers will have to wear masks on planes before too long.
“We may be required to wear face masks when we go through security and even gloves once we’re on the airplane in the interest of public health," he said. “The onboard experience may be more limited as airlines try to find the right balance between serving customers and observing social distancing practices and protecting passengers and crew at the same time.”
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But for now, it's unclear if government regulators are going to broadly enact any such requirements. There were no mandates in the $50 billion airline bailout package related to onboard public health measures, and the Trump administration has been famously reticent to impose new regulations on businesses.
It seems more likely that airlines will continue having to act on their own, and Nelson said she and her members are prepared to work with stakeholders across the industry to implement consistent public health practices across American aviation. Nelson of the AFA said she sees the union as a partner in such efforts.
Related: Delta CEO raises prospect of ‘immunity passports’ for air travel.
She has also advocated for a temporary pause in leisure travel. Although she acknowledged that losing out on any revenue may be painful for airlines in the short term, she said keeping passengers grounded will help slow the spread of the virus, and allow the industry to recover more quickly.
“This is not the time for you to go on vacation," she said. "We’re not calling for this to weaken aviation, we’re calling for this to strengthen aviation, so we can restart.”