Flight attendants at United Airlines have had to be reminded that their jobs as safety professionals require them to enforce the federal mask mandate even if they are left wondering whether the confrontation is worth it.
“We simply cannot cede our authority onboard the aircraft, ever,” warns the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) which represents United’s in-flight crewmembers. “We all ask ourselves, is the confrontation worth it?… More importantly, will I be supported by management if I make this request?” a memo from the union read.
United has managed to avoid the high-profile mask non-compliance incidents that have plagued some airlines including major rivals like American Airlines, as well as jetBlue and Southwest. That is, however, in part due to United’s low-key attitude to mask enforcement which emphasizes avoiding confrontation.
Nonetheless, flight attendants still have a job to enforce the mask mandate, AFA says.
“Unfortunately, mask compliance has become a politically polarized issue and not everyone sees these requests as a matter of safety. As a result, a simple request to a passenger to wear their mask properly can become contentious in the blink of an eye,” the union acknowledges.
But flight attendants must learn how to walk that tightrope. “As Flight Attendants, we understand what is expected of us,” the memo continues. “We know that asking a passenger to wear a mask is the same type of safety and regulatory request as asking them to fasten their seatbelt. And, we know, passengers are expected to comply with requests of the crew.”
Addressing concerns that some flight attendants are shying away from mask compliance and leaving awkward conversations up to more proactive crewmembers, the memo continued:
“All crew members on a flight must step up, as we do every day, to enforce our safety regulations in a collaborative way and keep people safe and to support each other in our work. It’s never only one Flight Attendant’s job to remind people about mask compliance.”
That’s certainly what one United flight attendant did on a recent flight from Frankfurt to Chicago when she told passengers she “really doesn’t want to fight” them over the mask mandate.
Explaining the only exemptions to the rules, the flight attendant said over the public address system: “So please ladies and gentlemen, unless you are eating or drinking something or two years of age or under… and acting like a two year does not count, you must wear a mask over your mouth and nose at all times.”
United has a three-stage escalation process for mask non-compliance with the third and final stage being to disengage and not talk to the passenger any further about the issue. Instead, flight attendants must file a report and United’s corporate security can follow up on the matter at a later date.
Passengers who have a report filed against their name could be barred from travel for a set period of time or even until the mask mandate is lifted. The Biden administration recently extended the mandate through January 18, 2022.
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.