EDITORIAL: The airplane mask loophole that aviation authorities should close

spirit masks
The Spirit Airlines flight attendants gave clear and precise instructions on mask-wearing rules before the aircraft left the gate.
Credit: Karen Walker

Earlier in September, I took a couple of day trip flights with two different US airlines, curious about the experience and, frankly, for the joy of flying after a COVID-induced hiatus since March. What I unexpectedly learned from those flights was that the single biggest solution to safe flying in a pandemic is also the simplest and the most difficult to enforce.

The solution is masks. While their use and effectiveness as confidence boosters are much less helpful when it comes to international travel, where quarantines are a highly effective deterrent to flying, they are key to domestic flights. The US has the world’s second largest domestic air travel market; 100% mask wearing compliance would make a big difference not just to virus transmission risk, but also to how comfortable people feel about flying.

Unfortunately, based on my four flights, there is still work to be done on compliance.

The targets I set for my flights were simple. Try to experience different airports, keep flights nonstop and to destinations from where I could return the same day, avoiding any need to leave the airport, use a taxi or stay in a hotel. And pay for everything on my own dime; no use of airline vouchers, no claiming for travel expenses.

The first trip was a return from Washington Reagan National to Charlotte, North Carolina, an American Airlines hub. Each flight was on an American Airbus A319.

In the airport, most people were wearing masks, but several were not. Some wore masks over their mouth, but not their nose, while others had the mask under their chin and were clearly using the “food and drink” exemption as a loophole, holding a cup or water bottle. Some were walking about and talking on their mobile phones, even though there is no exemption for talking. I did not see any non-compliant mask wearers being comprehended.

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When my flight began boarding, there was the usual crowding and little evidence of distancing, so I stayed behind and was the last but one to board. The American gate crews were reminding people to wear masks and passengers were reminded again by the flight attendants during a virus safety briefing that was given after the usual seatbelt/exit/oxygen mask brief.

In Charlotte, however, the difficulties of mask enforcement were obvious. As a hub, lots of people were coming in and out of different states—with different mask policies—and many were intent on finding their gate, not on distancing or mask wearing. The cup and phone loophole was also on display.

I headed to the American Airlines Admirals Club lounge for the two hours before my return flight. The lounge was very clean, services reduced but available, and mask compliance was strong, although some people removed their mask once seated regardless of food and beverage.

The return flight to Reagan was about half full. This time, I was the first to board and was in a window seat toward the front of the aircraft. A woman boarded behind me holding a large soda cup and with her mask on but clearly below her nose. The flight attendant greeting passengers said nothing and the woman sat on the window seat across the aisle from me, immediately removing her mask and holding on to the cup.  Another woman then boarded; she did not have a cup, but her mask was under her nose. She sat down in front of the unmasked woman.

The mask rule was given as we headed to the runway, but at no point did the flight attendants ask the women to wear a mask or wear it correctly over mouth and nose. The unmasked woman held on to her soda cup throughout takeoff and flight.

My next flights were from Baltimore-Washington to Boston and back with ultra-LCC Spirit Airlines. Those flights were both A320s and in each case the flights were between one quarter and one third full.

BWI had much more space in its terminal than Reagan, making distancing easier, but there was still evidence of non-mask wearing, including two pilots walking through the terminal, chatting with no masks in sight but a coffee cup in each hand.

Boarding the Spirit plane, the flight attendants were visibly monitoring every passenger’s mask and they pulled aside one man and asked him to adjust his mask. While still at the gate with the aircraft door open, the flight attendant made clear the rules and emphasized what mask compliance meant. Unlike on the American flight, where service was suspended, Spirit still offered snack and beverage service during the short flight, but all had to be paid for (as is Spirit’s policy) and the attendants made clear that masks could be lowered for actual drinking and eating, but not just because you had a cup to hand. Rules and compliance were consistent on the return flight.

In all cases, the aircraft were clean and cold—the cabin HEPA filters were pumping out scrubbed air. And flight attendants are dealing with a huge amount of stress, job insecurity and their own concerns about virus transmission, for themselves and their families.

But I took the onboard blatant non-mask compliance issue up with American. Their spokesperson responded very quickly and sincerely. The matter had been pushed up the chain, he said, and was taken very seriously. American has a 100% mask compliance rule and the flight attendants on that aircraft did not fulfill their duty.

However, it was clear that Spirit’s policy was better. By addressing the mask rule while the aircraft is at the gate, it is easier to turf anyone off if they don’t comply. The Spirit mask message was also both light-hearted—the flight attendant made a joke about recommending people sleep through the one-hour flight, but only after mask was securely in place—while making clear the specifics of what mask wearing means.

Airlines are in a bind. In the US, they have almost all mandated mask wearing but they have no federal backing. If a passenger refuses to wear a seatbelt when required or lights up a cigarette, he or she faces a fine or worse. An airline’s only way to enforce mask wearing is to threaten a passenger with being banned—a policy that some non-mask wearing people have ridiculed on social media.

An airline can’t do anything about the relatively small tube and close seating that an airliner provides. But airlines are going to extraordinary lengths to sanitize aircraft, filter cabin air and reduce transmission risks to absolute minimum. A mask over mouth and nose is small ask of the passenger, but a significant contributor to that risk reduction. It’s the right thing to do in a pandemic for yourself, your fellow passengers and the flight crew.

Governments and regulatory authorities should back up mask rule enforcement for as long as this pandemic continues. And the rules need to be more specific in order to close the eating/drinking/talking on a phone loophole. Finishing your coffee while seated is one thing; walking around or taking an entire flight unmasked because you have a cup in your hand is not. And it will further delay the return of those people who are taking virus transmission seriously from buying a new ticket and getting on a plane.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.