Airplanes have been a tense battleground during the coronavirus pandemic. While most people have complied with airlines putting mask requirements in place, a small but vocal minority has refused to follow rules intended to protect everyone, and videos of anti-maskers getting into standoffs with airplane crew and other passengers have gone viral. But even with airlines enacting strict mask rules, passengers with medical conditions have typically been exempt — and because of medical privacy laws, they don’t have to reveal what it exactly is or provide documentation for it.
But now, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, two of the largest U.S. carriers, have announced that even medical exemptions won’t fly. On Wednesday, they unveiled new policies that require everyone over the age of 2 to don a mask or be denied boarding. In its updated FAQ section, Southwest now states that “if a Customer is unable to wear a face covering for any reason (even a verifiable medical condition), we regret that we are unable to transport the Customer at this time.” The airline’s advice for passengers who can’t wear a mask is to either postpone their travel or “consider other forms of transportation.”
American Airlines’ press release states that they will not give any exemptions to anyone over age 2, and that the only time masks are permitted to come off on the plane is during eating and drinking. “Those unwilling to comply with this face covering requirement at any time during their journey with American may be barred from future travel for the duration of this face covering requirement,” the press release reads.
United and Delta have also announced that they’re modifying existing mask policies. Although it’s not getting rid of all exemptions, United is now requiring passengers who plan not to wear a mask due to a medical condition to contact the airline before travel or a customer service agent at the airport to document the medical exemption. Passengers will also now have to wear masks everywhere in the airport as well, including at check-in counters and at gates.
Delta’s new policy states that passengers who can’t wear a mask for medical reasons must go through a ‘Clearance-to-Fly’ process at the airport before boarding, which includes a consultation with a medical professional, and warns that they should arrive early as it could take up to an hour. The airline also says that false medical claims may result in being suspended from traveling with Delta while mask rules remain in place.
Some doctors and medical professionals have pointed out that the vast majority of medical exemptions aren’t really valid when it comes to refusing to wear a mask, and that people with asthma or other conditions that cause difficulty breathing should be wearing masks too. With airlines like American and United once again filling flights to capacity instead of leaving middle seats empty, the enclosed space of an airplane cabin makes social distancing extremely difficult, which makes mask usage even more important. Some new research suggests that wearing a mask not only reduces risk of spreading the virus to people around you, but may significantly reduce your own risk as well.
Without a federal law requiring masks on flights, airlines have been left to set their own rules over the past few months. In late April, JetBlue became the first major U.S. airline to set a face mask rule, and soon after many others followed suit. But despite these policies, there have been claims of lax enforcement. Some airlines have threatened to put rule-flouting passengers on their no-fly lists, and the CEO of Delta revealed that the airline has already banned over 100 passengers for refusing to comply with its mask policy. Disallowing all exemptions will help stop passengers from claiming medical conditions, but only if airlines actually strictly enforce masks in the cabin.