Airlines expand their face-mask rules—but government enforcement is needed, CEOs say

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Major airlines are cracking down on passengers who try to fly without face masks. But without a federal order, their ability to enforce their new rules remains limited—at best.

American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines this week all said they would expand their existing requirements for passengers to wear face masks aboard their planes and even as soon as they enter the airport, to protect workers and fellow passengers from the risk of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines this week increased its screening of passengers who say they cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition.

Most major U.S. airlines started requiring face masks aboard their planes by mid-June, and several of them are banning customers who refused to wear the coverings. Delta has now put at least 120 customers on internal no-fly lists for refusing to wear masks, according to an employee memo sent Thursday, while United CEO Scott Kirby said Wednesday that his company has taken action against “fewer than 30” customers. American and Southwest, which both reported second-quarter results on Thursday, declined to disclose how many passengers they have banned from future flights for ignoring their face-mask requirements.

“Countless studies and medical experts have advised us that masks are an essential response to the virus that will help us reduce transmission,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in an internal memo seen by Fortune. “That’s why we’re taking it very seriously.”

But it’s still very possible to board a plane and see many passengers slipping off their masks for most of the flight—as I, several of my Fortune colleagues, and anyone else who has flown recently can attest. So the industry’s piecemeal new rules, coming as each airline reports massive losses from the pandemic-related travel slump, seem unlikely to meaningfully improve mask-wearing compliance—or enforcement.

“The airlines are doing as much as they can with the tools that they have,” says Eduardo Angeles, a managing director at law firm Clark Hill and a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official under President Obama. “But unless [wearing masks is] mandated by the federal government, then it’s spotty—and it’s much less effective.”

‘Let’s mandate masks’

The federal government does not currently require that Americans wear face masks in airports or on airplanes, and the White House has resisted calls to mandate face coverings in public—even though greater mask discipline could halt the spread of the coronavirus in four to six weeks, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week.

More Americans are wearing masks in public, according to a Fortune-SurveyMonkey poll conducted between July 17 and 21—but the question of whether to mask or not remains politicized, with Republicans still less likely to wear masks than Democrats and with President Trump remaining a lukewarm supporter of the idea.

In the absence of a federal mask mandate, individual companies including Walmart, Best Buy, and Walgreens are trying to implement and enforce internal policies. Now airline CEOs, their companies at the forefront of so much of the pandemic’s sweeping damage to American businesses, are increasingly calling for the federal government to require all Americans to wear masks—not just on planes, but in all public spaces.

“It’s really important that we as a nation comply with the mask policy,” Delta’s Bastian said during a conference call last week. “The stronger that our federal government can reinforce the need to wear masks the better—not just in air travel, but in life in general.”

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly echoed Bastian on Thursday. “I have no problem with a mask mandate. I just don’t think it should be only for air travel,” he told CNBC’s Jim Cramer. “Let’s mandate masks. You have to wear pants. Why can’t we mandate that you have to wear a mask in a pandemic?”

Spokespeople for United and American referred questions about federal regulations to Airlines for America, an industry trade group, which has not requested a federal mandate on mask-wearing; a spokeswoman would not comment on the matter.

In the meantime, the airlines are hoping that their internal efforts will make a difference—and get more passengers more comfortable with flying.

Spokespeople for Delta, United, and American told Fortune that customers who refuse to wear masks would receive multiple warnings, sometimes in writing, before being put on future no-fly lists. But they declined to provide much detail about how flight attendants and other employees are being instructed to enforce the stricter regulations.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said that instructions on enforcing mask rules are part of the airline’s regular communication and training for flight attendants, but that the company also understands the need to be flexible with certain passengers.

“There are just so many different situations,” he said. For example, children over the age of two are required to wear masks, but if an older child “is fidgeting with it and has pulled a mask down…we’re not going to ask the flight attendants to sternly ask the child to pull their mask up over their nose, you know?”

Aviation industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group also points out that, even on the emptier flights these days, flight attendants “can’t be everywhere, especially during takeoff and landing.”

“Flight attendants do the best that they can, but there’s some passengers who are simply trying to outfox the flight attendants because they don’t want to wear a mask,” he adds. “There’s only so much they can do, absent federal policy.”

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