Airlines add new mask exemptions following federal mandate

Feb 2, 2021

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As of Feb. 2, 2021, travelers are now required by law to wear a mask when traveling on airplanes, trains, buses, taxis and rideshare services in the United States.

Previously, all U.S. airlines mandated face coverings of some sort, and anyone who refused to comply could be met with a temporary or permanent flying ban. Now, the stakes are even higher — bans are still on the table, but more severe penalties could also apply, including gigantic fines.

While the new federal mandate means airlines are now better equipped to deal with violations, it also opens up the possibility for certain travelers to request an exemption from wearing a mask, if they have a disability that prevents them from safely wearing one.

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Now, this isn’t some giant loophole that suddenly empowers travelers to declare that they don’t feel comfortable covering their face, or they have trouble breathing through a piece of cotton. According to the TSA:

“This is a narrow exception that includes a person with a disability who cannot wear a mask for reasons related to the disability; who, e.g., do not understand how to remove their mask due to cognitive impairment, cannot remove a mask on their own due to dexterity/mobility impairments, or cannot communicate promptly to ask someone else to remove their mask due to speech impairments or language disorders, or cannot wear a mask because doing so would impede the function of assistive devises/technology. It is not meant to cover persons for whom mask-wearing may only be difficult. CDC intends to issue further guidance regarding this exception.”

As of now, the CDC simply lists that an exemption can be made for “A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, for reasons related to the disability,” though airlines will likely have a much more narrow interpretation.

Customers with disabilities will need to have exemptions cleared before they pass through security or attempt to board a plane. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

American Airlines, for one, has released updated guidance for passengers who may require an exemption. As the airline states:

“American will ask customers with disabilities who are unable to wear a mask to notify the airline’s Special Assistance team at least 72 hours prior to departure to request an exemption from the requirement. Exemptions will require documentation from a licensed health care provider, as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from COVID-19.”

Additionally, American has further limited its list of acceptable face coverings, noting that bandanas and neck gaiters are no longer acceptable. All travelers must also observe the CDC’s mask requirements, which specifically exclude the following face coverings:

  • Masks worn in a way that does not cover both the mouth and nose
  • Face shields or goggles (face shields or goggles may be worn to supplement a mask that meets above required attributes)
  • Scarves, ski masks, balaclavas, or bandannas
  • Shirt or sweater collars (e.g., turtleneck collars) pulled up over the mouth and nose.
  • Masks made from loosely woven fabric or that are knitted, i.e., fabrics that let light pass through
  • Masks made from materials that are hard to breathe through (such as vinyl, plastic or leather)
  • Masks containing slits, exhalation valves, or punctures
  • Masks that do not fit properly (large gaps, too loose or too tight)

Delta will also allow disabled travelers to fly without a mask in very limited situations. The airline strongly discourages customers from traveling if they’re unable to wear a mask, though it will allow exemptions as part of its “Clearance-to-fly” process. As the airline explains:

“If you are a customer with a disability who requires this exemption, please arrive early to complete the process during check-in and avoid missing your flight – this process can take over one hour. Please arrive early to allow additional time. Mask exemptions only apply for travel on flights operated by Delta Air Lines and Delta Connection and do not exempt customers from any requirements that may be imposed by governments, including local, state or foreign countries, (at the origin or destination) or from requirements on other airlines.”

Delta also notes that any customers making false claims will have their travel privileges suspended — this process remains an option only for travelers with a true medical need.

Finally, according to Live and Let’s Fly, United Airlines has shared a memo with staff, stating that in very limited cases, customers may be permitted to travel without a mask. As the memo states:

Extraordinary circumstances are thoroughly reviewed by a panel of experts – including internal and external medical experts, legal and security – and follow a strict approval process. From time to time, customers contact United before a flight or at the airport to discuss rare, sensitive situations that may make them exempt from our onboard mask requirement.

While it’s rare that you’ll encounter someone with permission to fly without a mask, it’s always best to avoid confronting noncompliant travelers directly. Instead, you should raise any concerns directly with an individual tasked with enforcing the government mandate, such as an airport agent, flight attendant, law enforcement or a TSA officer.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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