Major U.S. airlines to require passengers to wear masks, though start dates vary
Recent U.S. flights have averaged fewer than 20 passengers, but crowded exceptions have raised concern
Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines rolled out requirements for passengers and staff to wear masks when travelling, following similar edicts earlier this week from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
The move comes as airlines big and small contemplate how to comply with physical distancing recommendations in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most flights are nearly empty these days — air travel in the United States is down 95 per cent from a year ago, and the average domestic flight has 17 passengers, according to industry figures.
But recently, passengers have posted photos on social media of crowded planes with many passengers who weren't covering their faces despite the recommendation by federal health officials to wear a mask when in public to prevent spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.
In some cases, airlines created the crowds by cancelling other flights and packing passengers onto fewer planes.
'We were all sitting right next to each other'
During a three-hour layover at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Vince Warburton noticed a crowd gathering in the gate area before his American Airlines flight to Los Angeles.
"People were laughing at the fact that [gate agents] were encouraging us to social distance while boarding the plane, and there were so many people in line," said the 32-year-old video engineer, who was commuting to a job.
"When we got on the plane, we were all sitting right next to each other."
Warburton was flying on a discount ticket and was assigned a middle seat in a full row.
"People were very uneasy. I was very uncomfortable."
Airline executives say they know that customers must feel safe before they'll venture from sheltering at home to getting on a plane, and they have taken some steps.
'This is the new flying etiquette'
This week, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to announce it will require passengers to wear face coverings during flights, starting next week.
"Wearing a face covering isn't about protecting yourself, it's about protecting those around you," said JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty. "This is the new flying etiquette."
Earlier Thursday, Frontier Airlines said that it would begin requiring masks May 8. Delta and United announced they would make masks mandatory starting Monday.
American, Southwest and Alaska have said it will be a requirement for passengers, effective May 11. Southwest said it will provide masks to customers who don't bring their own.
"In light of COVID-19, we're in a new era of air travel and are continually updating our safety standards to better protect our guests and employees," Max Tidwell, Alaska Airlines vice-president of safety, said in a statement. "For now, this includes wearing masks, which is another layer of protection that can reduce the spread of the virus."
American began requiring flight attendants to wear masks Friday, with Southwest issuing its requirement for customer-facing employees on Monday, and Alaska Air a day after that.
Enhanced cleaning measures
Until now, those airlines said they were encouraging passengers to wear masks, and several required their own flight attendants to wear them. The reluctance has come even as U.S. coronavirus deaths have soared from 1,000 on March 26 to more than 63,000 in just over a month.
Just hours before American Airlines announced it will require passengers to cover up, its airline CEO Doug Parker said he wanted to see how the rule worked at JetBlue, and expressed reservations about enforcing a mandatory policy.
"We want to be careful about putting our team in the position of being police on that," Parker told The Associated Press. "What we're hoping instead is that virtually all customers will choose for their own protection and out of respect for others on the airplane to wear a mask in flight."
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The Association of Flight Attendants, which says 300 of its members have contracted COVID-19, and some Democrats in Congress are pushing the Trump administration to require that passengers wear masks.
Air travel is "a major vector for COVID-19," Democratic senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who is chair of the House's transportation committee, said he pressed the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to require face coverings for all passengers and crew, and to require airlines to take "reasonable" steps to keep passengers at safe distances from each other.
In a statement, the FAA said Administrator Stephen Dickson expects airlines to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recommended that everyone wear face coverings when in public.
Beyond masks, several airlines say they are blocking some or all middle seats to create physical distancing. That is possible now on most flights but will become more difficult when passengers begin returning in bigger numbers — airlines would forfeit revenue if they block seats then.
Almost every airline says it is stepping up cleaning of planes, sometimes including the use of misting machines to spray anti-viral chemicals inside the cabin. They are also trying to persuade passengers that air inside the cabin is safe to breathe.
Cabin air on most jetliners is a mix of fresh air from the outside and recirculated air that is passed through high-efficiency or HEPA filters designed to trap most airborne particles.
In Canada, Transport Canada has made it mandatory for all passengers to wear masks while on board and in airports when they cannot physically distance two metres from others.
With files from CBC News