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Passengers Claim Unspecified Medical Conditions and Religious Grounds to Avoid Wearing Face Masks on U.S. Airlines

Passengers Claim Unspecified Medical Conditions and Religious Grounds to Avoid Wearing Face Masks on U.S. Airlines

Passengers will simply be allowed to self-declare a medical condition, disability or religious exemption to avoid being placed on a ‘No Fly’ list if they fail to comply with mandatory airline face mask rules it emerged last night. Major U.S. airlines moved to ramp up enforcement on their face mask policies on Monday after they witnessed an uptick in the number of passengers ignoring the rules but the long list of exemptions could make sanctions all but impossible to impose.

Mandatory face mask polices have been in place at airlines including the likes of American, Delta and United Airlines since early May but soon after it emerged that carrier’s had little power to force compliance once passengers had made it onboard. Both American and United told flight attendants they could not order a passenger to wear a mask, while Delta told crew they should only request passengers wear a mask.

Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

Yesterday, a group of airlines represented by Washington-based lobby group Airlines for America said they would do more to educate passengers about the face mask requirements and non-compliance could result in a flight ban. As well as American, Delta and United, other airlines to have signed up to the scheme include Alaska, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines.

Both American and United confirmed last night that they would issue travel bans in some cases.

“American, like other U.S. airlines, already requires customers to wear a face covering while onboard aircraft. American already enforces this policy at the gate and will deny boarding to customers who don’t comply,” the Dallas Fort Worth-based airlines said in a statement.

“American now may also deny future travel for customers who refuse to wear a face-covering… We believe the face-covering requirement is important, so customers will notice more reminders of our policy as they travel with us, both at the airport and inflight,” the statement continued.

But internal guidance to flight attendants stipulates their role is still only to “advise” passengers of the rules. Flight attendants have been told to address the situation “discreetly” and if a passenger advises them they can’t wear a mask or covering because of a medical condition, disability, or on religious grounds, then flight attendants have been told to take no further action.

“If the passenger chooses not to comply for other reasons, please encourage them to comply,” guidance from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants advises its members.

United Airlines told its flight attendants that passengers who refuse to wear a face mask must be warned at least three times before they submit a report that could result in a ban.

“Be empatheric, acknolwdge and state our policy. Inform the customer that for the health and safety of everyone, face coverings are mandatory for all customers and crew onboard,” the guidance reads.

Flight attendants are then advised to use de-escalation skills and to issue a ‘reminder card’ to passengers who continue to flout the rules. “Don’t be afraid to get another flight attendant involved, and remember, your role is to inform, not enforce compliance,” the memo continues. Spare masks will be available to offer passengers.

“Finally, notify the Flight Deck that you have a customer who is non-compliant with the face covering policy. You may request that the Flight Deck make an announcement over the PA reminding customers of the needed compliance with the (face mask) policy.”

Only after all of those steps have been exhausted will United’s flight attendants then be allowed to submit a report.

United said in a statement that the overwhelming majority of its passengers were already complying with its face mask policy but starting June 18, sanctions for non-compliance could be imposed, including being placed on an internal travel restriction list.

“Customers on this list will lose their travel privileges on United for a duration of time to be determined pending a comprehensive incident review,” the airline explained.

United says passengers with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering, as well as those who cannot put on or remove a face covering themselves are exempt from the policy. Small children and infants are also exempt.

Unlike some foreign airlines, such as Dutch flag carrier KLM, U.S. carriers will not require passengers to seek permission for an exemption from a medical clearing unit prior to travel. In contrast, to the enforcement measures announced yesterday, KLM has diverted one flight due to a passenger who refused to wear a mask, while a second passenger was slapped with a €300 fine by Dutch police for non-compliance.

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