Not ev­ery air­line is en­forc­ing mask rule

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Vic­to­ria Knight

Tony Scott boarded an Amer­i­can Air­lines flight May 25 from Los Angeles to Dal­las. It was a trip he felt he had to take de­spite con­cerns about the coro­n­avirus. His son, who lives in Texas, was hav­ing health prob­lems.

The teen seated next to Scott in busi­ness class wasn’t wear­ing a mask. Scott was sur­prised be­cause be­fore the flight he re­ceived an email from Amer­i­can re­mind­ing him masks were re­quired. He flagged down a flight at­ten­dant, who gently re­minded the teen of the face­cov­er­ing rule. She still de­clined to wear the mask, and the flight at­ten­dant told Scott that be­cause she was a mi­nor, the teen was ex­empt from the re­quire­ment.

But Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion guide­lines state that only chil­dren younger than 2 are ex­empt. The flight at­ten­dant also didn’t of­fer to move Scott to an­other seat.

Scott, a 53­year­old African Amer­i­can with asthma, was up­set. He said he is in a high­risk cat­e­gory for COVID­19 and was shocked by this ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’m very wor­ried about get­ting coro­n­avirus,” Scott told Kaiser Health News. “I want to be safe, I don’t want to die and I want the air­line to stop putting peo­ple at risk.”

Josh Freed, an Amer­i­can Air­lines spokesman, re­it­er­ated the poli­cies on the com­pany’s web­site but de­clined to dis­cuss Scott’s sit­u­a­tion.

Other cus­tomers have echoed Scott’s ex­pe­ri­ence on so­cial me­dia, telling tales of un­even, in­con­sis­tent and even in­cor­rect COVID­19 pol­icy en­force­ment on var­i­ous air­lines‘ flights.

As peo­ple have be­gun trav­el­ing again, they are find­ing that the pub­lic health guide­lines in place

“I don’t want to die, and I want the air­line to stop putting peo­ple at risk.”

Tony Scott, who said Amer­i­can Air­lines did not en­force its mask rules

for fly­ing of­ten are a messy patch­work of pre­cau­tions that lack the teeth to pro­tect pas­sen­gers. More of­ten, the pri­or­ity is on sell­ing tick­ets. And fed­eral agen­cies have been loath to es­tab­lish and en­force safety stan­dards.

Nearly a month af­ter Scott’s flight, it was widely re­ported that Amer­i­can es­corted a pas­sen­ger off a flight af­ter he re­fused to wear a mask and then banned him from fu­ture Amer­i­can flights while the mask rule re­mains in place. It was the first known in­ci­dent of stepped­up en­force­ment of air­lines’ poli­cies. Amer­i­can now states that if a pas­sen­ger is not ex­empt from wear­ing a face mask and re­fuses to wear one, they may be de­nied board­ing and fu­ture travel on Amer­i­can.

In mid­June, Air­lines for Amer­ica, the trade group that rep­re­sents the ma­jor U.S. air­lines, an­nounced that its mem­bers would be “vig­or­ously en­forc­ing” face­cov­er­ing poli­cies by com­mu­ni­cat­ing be­fore the flight and mak­ing on­board an­nounce­ments. The group said it would be up to each air­line to de­ter­mine the con­se­quences for not wear­ing a face mask.

“All (Air­lines for Amer­ica) car­ri­ers have im­ple­mented a face­cov­er­ing re­quire­ment and have de­ter­mined the ap­pro­pri­ate con­se­quences for pas­sen­gers who are found to be in non­com­pli­ance,” said spokes­woman Kather­ine Estep.

United said pas­sen­gers will lose travel priv­i­leges with the air­line for a cer­tain pe­riod of time that “will be de­ter­mined when we re­view the in­ci­dent.” Delta said a re­fusal to com­ply will “risk fu­ture flight priv­i­leges.” South­west said it will deny board­ing to any cus­tomer not wear­ing a mask.

The an­nounce­ment comes af­ter most ma­jor U.S. air­lines started re­quir­ing masks on board flights in early May. But, since then, many peo­ple, such as Scott, re­ported that the pol­icy isn’t be­ing en­forced.

But the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has con­tin­ued to leave it up to the air­lines to reg­u­late them­selves re­gard­ing masks and other poli­cies to foster con­sumer con­fi­dence in air travel.

Though most air­lines out­line on their web­sites mea­sures to help pas­sen­gers main­tain so­cial dis­tance, the specifics vary sig­nif­i­cantly.

Amer­i­can said Fri­day it will be­gin book­ing full flights.

United Air­lines said it will be “ad­just­ing ad­vance seat se­lec­tion.” and Amer­i­can said it may re­as­sign seats or move peo­ple once on­board.

Delta and South­west said they are block­ing mid­dle seats to en­sure space be­tween cus­tomers. Delta is also block­ing some win­dow and aisle seats, and JetBlue is do­ing the same for mid­dle and aisle seats, with both air­lines bas­ing these de­ci­sions on the size of the air­craft. Ex­cep­tions are usu­ally al­lowed for fam­i­lies who want to sit to­gether.

The web­sites for some bud­get air­lines, such as Fron­tier, Spirit and Al­le­giant, don’t pro­vide such specifics. Al­le­giant dis­cour­ages cus­tomers from book­ing the mid­dle seat.

There are also the mat­ters of board­ing and even health screen­ings.

Delta, United, JetBlue and Fron­tier are board­ing pas­sen­gers from back to front so they don’t have to closely pass one an­other. South­west is board­ing 10 peo­ple at a time, from only one side of the board­ing poles. Air­lines have also mod­i­fied food and bev­er­age ser­vice.

And on June 1, Fron­tier be­came the first U.S. air­line to start screen­ing pas­sen­gers for fever be­fore board­ing.

The air­line said any pas­sen­ger with a tem­per­a­ture over 100.4 de­grees Fahren­heit will be de­nied board­ing, though cus­tomers will be checked again af­ter a “rest pe­riod” if there is time. Since April, Fron­tier has also been re­quir­ing pas­sen­gers when they check in to ver­ify that they have no COVID symp­toms, nor does any­one else in their house­hold. United, South­west and Al­le­giant are now ask­ing pas­sen­gers to fill out health ques­tion­naires at checkin.

No other air­lines are screen­ing tem­per­a­tures yet, though the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­port­edly been in talks with the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion to test the idea at select air­ports as part of the se­cu­rity check process.

“At this time, no decision has been made re­gard­ing health screen­ing mea­sures at air­ports,” TSA spokes­woman Lorie Dankers said in an email. And the agency isn’t ea­ger for a pub­lic dis­cus­sion. “It is pre­ma­ture to talk about any as­pect or specifics of how this could even oc­cur.”

Since March, the air­line in­dus­try has suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant losses, with travel down by al­most 90% be­cause of stay­ath­ome or­ders and fears of the pan­demic. But as busi­nesses restart op­er­a­tions, it has sent clear sig­nals about its hopes for how travel will pro­ceed amid COVID­19 con­cerns: Air­lines want the lee­way to set and man­age their own safety re­quire­ments while they re­gain their fi­nan­cial foot­ing.

Be­sides an­nounc­ing more vig­or­ous face mask en­force­ment, Air­lines for Amer­ica be­gan a cam­paign that “show­cases the proac­tive mea­sures U.S. air­lines are im­ple­ment­ing to en­hance san­i­ta­tion and dis­in­fec­tion pro­ce­dures,” said Estep in a state­ment. Some of the bur­den falls on cus­tomers and Estep said the cam­paign would re­mind “the trav­el­ing pub­lic of steps they can take to help pre­vent the spread of COVID­19.”

The Na­tional Air Car­rier As­so­ci­a­tion, whose mem­bers are low­cost air­lines such as Fron­tier, Spirit and Al­le­giant, takes a harder line. It op­poses any fed­eral reg­u­la­tion to en­force ca­pac­ity lim­its or block out mid­dle seats, say­ing such mea­sures could cause bank­ruptcy and higher ticket costs.

These hands­off ap­proaches draw skep­ti­cal re­sponses from ad­vo­cates who want the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­tect pub­lic health.

Paul Hud­son, pres­i­dent of Fly­er­sRights, a con­sumer or­ga­ni­za­tion, said the gov­ern­ment lets the air­lines do what­ever they want. “The FAA is sup­posed to deal with safety, but they have taken the po­si­tion that they can­not reg­u­late health un­less they are di­rected to do so” by the sec­re­tary of trans­porta­tion.

In­deed, FAA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Steve Dick­son wrote in an April let­ter to the Air Line Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion, the largest pi­lots union, that the FAA is “not a pub­lic health agency.”

And Dick­son told a Se­nate com­mit­tee that the CDC, not the FAA, is the lead agency charged with re­quir­ing safety pre­cau­tions against the spread of the coro­n­avirus.

“Our space is avi­a­tion safety, and their space is pub­lic health,” he said.

But some Democrats are press­ing for more. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and the lead­er­ship of key House com­mit­tees separately sent let­ters in May to Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao ask­ing her to is­sue uni­form guide­lines about seat­ing on flights and other as­pects of air travel.

Be­cause the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to the air­line in­dus­try in the Cares Act to help it sur­vive the coro­n­avirus era, some ar­gue the gov­ern­ment should also set uni­form safety stan­dards.

“We are spend­ing some­where be­tween $40 and $50 bil­lion in a va­ri­ety of grants and sub­si­dies to air­lines to help them make it through this episode, and yet the gov­ern­ment won’t go to the ex­tent of pro­mul­gat­ing a rule to make ev­ery­one wear masks, which puts us all at risk,” said Robert Mann, an avi­a­tion an­a­lyst.

Gene J. Puskar / As­so­ci­ated Press

Amer­i­can Air­lines an­nounced Fri­day that it will start book­ing its flights to full ca­pac­ity this week.

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