United Airlines has become the first major U.S. airlines to mandate that its flight attendants wear a face mask or covering whenever they are on duty but will stop short of providing more enhanced Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like disposable gowns, goggles and hair coverings. The decision from United comes into effect on Friday and echoes similar rules introduced by Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines and Emirates.
In an internal memo, the airline told its flight attendants that the new rules had been made in coordination with the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. United told staffers that the requirement to wear a face-covering was a “proactive, aggressive measure to keep you and our customers safe”.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended the use of face masks or homemade face coverings since April 3 after examining evidence that suggests many people who contract the novel Coronavirus are asymptomatic sufferers and could pass on the virus without knowing it.
While there is little evidence to show that wearing a face mask can help adequately protect the wearer, more and more health bodies including the CDC believe wearing a face mask could lower the risk of a sufferer passing on the virus. That’s why the CDC now recommends wearing a mask in places where maintaining social distancing is difficult – like on an airplane.
That’s also why the Association of Flight Attendants has written to Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao, demanding that passengers should also be made to wear face masks whenever they are on a plane. Similar rules have already been introduced across the border in Canada and several other countries.
“For air travellers, we recommend that the federal government provide all airports sufficient numbers of disposable cloth or paper masks that are more effective than homemade masks at limiting viral spread,” Sara Nelson, president of AFA wrote in the letter.
“These should be provided free to all members of the public entering airport buildings with the stipulation that they be worn at all times on airport property and on airplanes, and only removed momentarily when necessary for identity verification or food and drink.”
For flight attendants and other frontline transportation workers, Nelson would like to see companies provide enhanced N95 masks (once supplies to the healthcare sector become stable) but that’s not a recommendation that United has yet got on board with.
According to its memo to flight attendants, the airline will supply just one surgical-type mask per flight attendant for their entire duty day. That means the masks may need to be reworn and handled, even if contaminated. It’s generally accepted that surgical masks only have an effective lifespan of just four hours.
The airline reminded flight attendants that the small supply of N95 masks currently provisioned should only be used by flight attendants providing direct assistance to a customer showing symptoms of COVID-19. Flight attendants were also reminded that they would need to take off their covering to put on an oxygen mask in the event of a decompression.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.