For the love of travel: Why we need a federal mandate on masks now more than ever

Jul 23, 2020

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.

Wearing a mask is perhaps the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In fact, it’s a CDC recommendation. The agency suggests wearing face coverings in public settings, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

Now, consider an airplane. Even with blocked middle seats, odds are that you’re going to be sitting within six feet of a stranger. If everyone on the plane wears a mask, the chance of COVID-19 spreading is greatly diminished.

Though every major U.S. airline requires masks to be worn inflight, there’s a hodgepodge of ever-changing rules that can be confusing to travelers. Enforcement is hard, especially with medical exceptions.

The solution: now is the time for a federal mandate on masks on planes, in airports and any other public space connected to interstate travel.

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more airline news!

Policies all over the place

Since the outset of the pandemic, we’ve seen airlines adopt and refine their policies on masks.

What started as a recommendation quickly became a rule for ground staff and cabin crew. Then, passengers were required to wear masks. But it didn’t just stop there.

The language of the mask requirements got stronger, and non-compliant passengers were threatened to be banned by the airlines. Plus, figuring out what to do if you had a medical exception or were traveling with a child wasn’t easy or necessarily clear. And are masks just required in flight or during the entire airport-to-airport travel experience?


All the while, each airline was operating on a different timeline. It felt like each airline began copying and pasting from each other’s rulebook, and it was — and still is — difficult to pinpoint exact policy.

Related: Complete guide to airline social distancing and health policies

Enforcement is hard

Just because a mask is required doesn’t necessarily mean that passengers follow instructions. Some simply don’t want to wear masks.

And though airlines have threatened to bar anti-maskers from future flights, enforcement is tricky. Someone could board a flight with a mask, only to take it off once onboard.

Flight attendants, already busy with other responsibilities, don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to police masks. And airlines aren’t in the business of diverting flights to offload those who won’t wear a mask.

Delta has so far banned over 100 customers, while United has barred roughly 30.

And though airlines are keeping to their word, we’ve seen pictures of passengers wearing masks incorrectly or taking a leisurely meal break sans mask. That doesn’t even address another potential loophole: Being banned from airline doesn’t stop a passenger from flying on another carrier.

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

Medical exceptions are tricky

And of course, some will claim that they have medical exceptions that get in the way of wearing a mask. Though some are likely valid, it’s hard to police what’s legit and what’s not.

Delta’s solving for the issue by requiring anyone who claims an exception to undergo a “Clearance-to-Fly” exam before boarding. These virtual consultations with Delta’s doctors will determine if one’s medical condition prevents them from wearing a mask. The decision to fly maskless is ultimately at Delta’s discretion.

(Photo courtesy of Delta)

American Airlines and Southwest, on the other hand, are no longer granting exceptions based on medical conditions. Both airlines have announced that they won’t board passengers who can’t wear a mask during the entire flight.

This comes as the Department of Justice (DOJ) reiterates that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t allow one to skirt the rules on face covering.

According to the DOJ, “cards and other documents bearing the Department of Justice seal and claiming that individuals are exempt from face mask requirements are fraudulent… The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”

Some people are clearly creating fake documents just to get around mask-wearing policies. And that won’t fly with some airlines.

Cases rising and asymptomatic spread is tough to identify

Nearly four million people have been infected with the virus in the U.S. alone. Of those, at least 143,000 have died. Some states that reopened early are now seeing cases surge. A number of states — including Florida and California — have seen positive cases spike in recent days and deaths are increasing in those states, too.

And though many people present symptoms of the virus, others don’t. Asymptomatic cases are some of the most problematic since it’s hard to know if you’ve been infected. If you then get on a flight and refuse to wear a mask, you’ll be spreading the virus to others who could be more vulnerable and develop much more complicated reactions to infection.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

A federal mandate could solve these issues

Wearing a seat belt is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirement. Why can’t masks be as well?

For one, an FAA mask mandate on planes would apply to flights to, from or within the U.S. This would simplify all the varying rules we’ve seen so far in the industry. Each carrier serving the U.S. would be forced to adopt the FAA rule.

Not only would it streamline the rule-making process for the airline, but it’d make it easier for the customer to understand too — regardless of their chosen carrier.

And airlines would no longer have to play the uncomfortable role of the middle man. Not only would they no longer have to make the rules, but enforcement would be much easier too.

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.

(Photo by AJ_Watt/Getty Images)

Lastly, it could help curb the spread of the virus. If the FAA worked to devise a strict, far-reaching and enforceable policy, perhaps the aviation industry could accelerate its recovery.

But don’t take it from me. Gary Kelly, Southwest’s CEO, told CNBC’s Jim Cramer, “let’s mandate masks. You have to wear pants. Why can’t we mandate that you have to wear masks during a pandemic? It’s broader than just airlines… You ought to be wearing it everywhere else too.”

Unfortunately, however, we likely won’t see an FAA mandate on masks anytime soon. In an April letter to the Air Line Pilots Association, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson wrote: “While the FAA remains steadfast in its focus on safety of flight, we are not a public health agency. We must look to other U.S. Government agencies for guidance on public and occupational health.”

The same discourse was repeated at a senate committee in June, as Dickson mentioned that “our space is aviation safety, and their [the CDC] space is public health.”

Related: These are your choices for the best and most comfortable masks 

Bottom line

Right now, airlines are on their own regarding mask policies.

Most carriers have a slightly different version of the requirement, with enforcement varying across carriers too. Plus, how airlines handle medical exemptions isn’t uniform either.

Combined with the rapid rise in cases, it’s time for the feds to reconsider adopting a mask requirement for planes. Until there’s a vaccine, it may just be our only hope to accelerate aviation’s recovery.

Featured photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

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.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • 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 up to 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 in the U.S., 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 $80 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 PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • 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
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.