Reported mask refusal leads to ‘traumatic’ flight, highlights challenge facing airlines
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Passengers on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Tel Aviv last week reported having to endure the long-haul journey seated next to mask-less passengers, according to a report in The Times of Israel, with flight attendants reportedly unsuccessful in convincing the noncompliant travelers to cover up.
Notably, the flight in question appeared to have taken place last Thursday, Jan. 21 — the same day President Biden signed an executive order mandating masks on all flights. Airlines already had their own mask requirements in place, but it’ll take some time before the order leads to additional enforcement action, pending guidance from the Department of Transportation.
Once federal enforcement takes effect, passengers could potentially face fines in the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how the DOT decides to structure its policy. For now, noncompliant flyers get a stern warning from a flight attendant, and, if their behavior is especially egregious, a temporary or permanent ban from the airline.
It’s unclear what penalties, if any, passengers faced following this particular flight. United was unable to comment, or even confirm the flight details. If the situation had escalated, it’s possible the crew could have diverted in order to remove passengers refusing to follow flight attendant instructions. But that’s especially unlikely with an international flight at the moment, as I’ll explain more below.
Based on references in The Times of Israel report, it seems the flight in question was United 90, operated by a Boeing 787-10. Fortunately for passengers, this particular flight included many unoccupied seats.
In fact, according to the seat map from the flight, just 73 were assigned, of the more than 200 available between the two economy cabins. There were large sections of unassigned seats available in the forward cabin, though passengers may have chosen to disperse after boarding.
If the flight had been more full, it’s certainly possible that the situation could have escalated, potentially leading to an altercation between passengers. Had the engagement turned violent, onboard air marshals may have intervened as well.
If things really got ugly, the crew could have made the decision to divert the plane, though with current restrictions on international travel, and the fact that United 90 spends much of its time flying over the Atlantic Ocean, it’s likely we’d only see that action if the safety of the aircraft, or the lives of passengers or crew were at risk.
Logistically, diversions are much easier to navigate during domestic flights — on a transcontinental flight, often operated by the same Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, United could have easily decided to land at one of its hubs to remove the passengers, with a brief pitstop in Chicago (ORD) or Denver (DEN). In that case, perhaps the threat of a diversion could have helped motivate flyers to comply.
I checked in with representatives at American Airlines, Delta and United to get a better idea of how they might handle a similar situation. All three noted that their flight attendants are trained in de-escalation, and wouldn’t specifically comment on whether an incident like this would have led to a diversion.
Diversions can be identified via flight tracking services, though an airline rarely draws attention to these flights. Generally, it’s passenger reports — often social media posts that include photos and video — that lead to coverage. It’s impossible to determine how many flights have been diverted due to passengers refusing to observe mask mandates, but the number is likely to be very low.
We do know that U.S. airlines have taken other action against noncompliant passengers, though, including barring them from booking future flights. As of this writing, Delta has banned nearly 900 passengers for mask mandate noncompliance, with more than 600 banned by United.
Flight attendants are eager to have the new federal mandate take effect, too. As Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) president Sara Nelson explained following last week’s executive order, the “mask mandate for interstate travel, including airports and planes, will provide much needed back up for Flight Attendants and aviation workers on the frontlines.”
In the meantime, if you encounter a passenger not wearing a mask on your flight, it’s best to discreetly raise the issue with a flight attendant — they’re empowered to remind travelers of their duty to cover their nose and mouth, and may be able to issue a formal warning, and move other passengers a safe distance away.
If the issue is not resolved, I would ask to speak with the purser or cabin supervisor, and consider politely requesting that they file a report with the airline upon arrival.
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees