Southwest Airlines will introduce tough new face mask rules that will make it even more difficult for passengers with a legitimate medical exemption to fly with the airline while still complying with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) federal mask mandate.
Along with requiring a pre-travel questionnaire at least seven days before departure and written proof of their medical exemption from a physician, passengers will also need to obtain a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test certificate within 72-hours of departure and undergo a private medical screening with a third-party medical provider.
Once a passenger has jumped through those hoops, Southwest Airlines will still refuse to board them if the flight is booked to 50 per cent capacity or more. Even on a near-empty flight, an exempt passenger may still be refused boarding if there is more than one exempt passenger booked on the same flight.
One of President Biden’s first acts on entering the White House was to introduce a federal face mask mandate for passengers and employees on public transport including airplanes. The order came into effect on February 1 but the mandate actually eased the strict face mask rules that some airlines had introduced.
Like American Airlines and United, Dallas-based Southwest airlines barred anyone over the age of two years old from flying with them if they claimed to have a medical condition that prevented them wearing a face mask. Instead, Southwest told passengers to either delay travel indefinitely or find another airline to fly with.
The federal mask mandate, however, included a specific exemption for passengers with medical issues that made it impossible for them to wear a mask. Airlines like United and Southwest have been forced to comply, although they can add conditions.
“As a mitigation measure, DOT allows airlines to schedule the passenger (not wearing a mask) on a less-crowded flight. Therefore, Southwest requires that a Passenger obtaining a mask exemption travel on a flight with less than 50% capacity at the time of the flight’s departure, and with no other Passengers on board approved for a mask exemption,” the airline explains on its website.
Southwest says it will accommodate passengers on a different flight at no extra cost but this might be on a later date. If that were to happen, passengers would be responsible for covering the cost of a new COVID-19 test themselves.
According to TSA data, passenger numbers are slowly ticking up with travel demand currently sitting around 45 to 50 per cent of what it was at this time in 2019. However, many airlines have slashed schedules and consolidated flights, meaning that passenger numbers often exceed 50 per cent capacity.
The CDC still recommends that people avoid all but the most essential of air travel – including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The agency also says passengers should continue to wear a face mask on airplanes, in airports and anywhere else in a crowded public environment.
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.