When “Required” Doesn’t Actually Mean Required When it Comes to Masks on Airlines

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tl;dr: Airlines, including American and Delta say that masks are “required” on board, but enforcement of this supposed requirement is spotty, at best. It would be more accurate to say they're “requested” or “recommended.” But, a new announcement promises tougher rules to put passenger safety first?


It might seem obvious, but flying is not great right now. I haven't traveled for work since I flew home from a client on March 11th. I'd rather not be flying right now.

Being in the midst of a cross-country relocation due to my wife's job, I've now flown two round trips (well, I'm in the middle of the last round trip right now).

When flying, there are certainly things you can do to protect yourself (as I previously blogged about related to gas stations and hotels).

You can pretty well keep distanced from others in the security line, the terminal, and during boarding. The airlines seem to have modified boarding processes to try to minimize crowding (Delta, for example, is boarding back-to-front regardless of status, boarding zones, etc.).

Regular readers or Twitter followers might ask, “Wait, don't you always fly American?” Yup… until now. Read on…

TSA has signs and floor markings for 6-foot distances, but it's still not an ideal process:

  • TSA officer had to grab and touch my ID
    • Hopefully, this will be made contactless soon as it is when I was able to use CLEAR and their iris-scan technology at LAX
  • TSA officer made me pull down my mask to confirm who I am
    • Making it better was that they did have a plexiglass barrier and they wore a mask
    • And the proximity was not “prolonged,” which seems to be the real risk factor for person-to-person spread

I've long recommended that if you use a phone-based electronic boarding pass that you do not place the phone down on the scanner there (or at the gate). Avoid contact by holding it over the scanner (that works).

I'm an advocate for wearing masks in public places and I practice what I preach. I've changed my social media profile photos to the phone shown at left, with a mask that my Lean friend Karyn Ross so kindly made and sent to me. This was back in April when it wasn't as easy to find cloth masks to buy.

When I fly, I'm wearing that mask “door-to-door” meaning I:

  • Wash my hands at home (soap and hot water for 20 seconds)
  • Put the mask on
  • Leave it on, not touching it or adjusting it
  • Get to my destination and take the mask off by the straps
  • Wash my hands again (soap and hot water for 20 seconds)

I'm also going to make sure that my stomach is full and that I'm well hydrated so I could avoid taking the mask off at during during the trip. It's not pleasant to go without food or water for five hours, but it's possible.

American Airlines Announces Masks are Required

In May, American (my usual airline for many years) announced that passengers would be required to wear masks starting May 11.

The word used is “required.”

When I first flew on May 20, I was disappointed to learn that “required” didn't really mean “required.” It wasn't compulsory.

It was more “requested” or “recommended” as it turned out.

I was fortunate to be in first class. Every single seat in first was full and the plane seemed close to 100% full. American says they block “50% of middle seats” which is just one out of every six seats in coach. I've seen them use language like “working to” and “when possible” (ah, weasel words).

Up in first, it's certainly not six-foot distancing in any direction. Airline personnel had been announcing in the boarding area that masks were required for boarding and were required in flight. They were even handing out what appeared to be surgical masks if people didn't have a mask (that's an upgrade over a cloth mask).

I boarded first and was in a window seat. I normally take an aisle seat, but sitting by the window was an intentional Covid-19 strategy to be further away from the aisle where people would be boarding. Again, that's not “prolonged” proximity, but I have enough experience being annoyed by being hit with bags or other items as people come through. My strategy was to avoid that contact.

So, my seat neighbor comes on and starts to sit in his aisle seat. No mask.

I said something like,

“Hey, they said masks are required for boarding and in-flight… what's up?”

I might have been a bit aggressive with my open-ended question, but it's health and safety related, so please forgive me.

He replied,

“Um, I dropped it.”

That seemed like an unlikely excuse. To his credit, he reached into a bag and pulled out a mask. He put it on. Great.

But, then the flight attendant came to offer drinks. I'm all for hydration, as I already mentioned. He ordered a Jack and Coke.

He pulled out a bag full of snacks.

Yes, the airlines allow you to have your mask off when eating or drinking. I have nothing against alcohol, but there's a difference between necessary water and a recreational Jack and Coke.

The flight attendant kept offering more drinks. He had four of them in a three-hour flight. This meant that his mask was off more and more. I figured his mask was off 80% of the time.

It's admittedly rude to take his picture, but I've tried to obscure his identity. It was more rude of him to not wear a mask.

Not wearing a mask doesn't just put that guy at jeopardy. This isn't like seat belts in a car — if he chooses to never wear a seat belt, that doesn't affect others outside of his car.

When people say things like,

“I'm not worried about this virus or Covid-19, so I can choose to not wear a mask,”

They are missing the point. It's possible for him to get infected and then pass along the virus without getting very sick himself. Cloth masks aren't perfect protection in either direction, but everybody wearing masks is more effective than half of us not doing it.

This guy was ignorant about viruses or just didn't care, evidenced by:

  • He didn't use hand sanitizer before eating his chips
  • He was constantly licking the flavor dust from his fingers after each bit
  • He was playing with his phone (which could be contaminated) the whole time

I didn't say anything to him again, because the last thing I wanted was him turning and talking to me (spitting droplets) yet alone being angry and really spewing them in my direction.

I also didn't ask the flight attendant to intervene because I figured that was a waste of time. They clearly saw the passenger had no mask on as they kept bringing the Jack and Cokes.

I normally wear a cloth mask, but I did wear a KN-95 mask for the trip, just in case I needed more protection from somebody not wearing one.

I also used the recommended strategy of turning on the overhead air nozzles, so it was blowing down as strong as possible in front of my face. That air is highly filtered (as opposed to the air that was coming out of my seat neighbor's unmasked mouth). The idea is that the downward airflow would help provide a bit of a shield. I hope that's not just spreading the potential germs toward others. All the more reason why we should all wear masks on board.

American's Lame Response

Even though complaining to American has proven to be a waste of time in the past, I called the Executive Platinum customer service line to tell them about my experience.

I was rudely dismissed by an employee saying, “I respect your thoughts,” but nothing was going to change.

I was then sent a survey about my flight via email. I guess my low scores (no I won't recommend your airline to anyone) got their attention. I got a phone call from a person in the “Executive Liaison team” who was more willing to at least have a conversation about this.

He said he was “sorry that the mask rule was not followed” and it was “inappropriate.”

I took my return flight and there were also a few people without masks. I had been upgraded in a 787, so the spacing and barriers between seats were much greater. I was less bothered.

But I'm still bothered that American's supposed “requirement” has no teeth.

If you're thinking something like,

“Well, Mark, if you're that uncomfortable, you can choose not to fly.”

That's not always true. I'm not going out of my way to look for recreational or business travel flights.

My beef is with the gap between American's stated “requirement” and reality.

If American said,

“We kindly request that passengers wear masks out of consideration for others, but we cannot legally enforce it (and will not try)”

Then that would affect my decision making about when to fly and which airline to use.

When you go to book a ticket on American, you're told repeatedly that masks are “required.” That's misleading… it's more like a “lie.”

There are messages all over their website about this “requirement”:

They are not living up to that.

After that second flight, I called back to the Executive Liaison team and talked to somebody else.

I was told, “it definitely is a requirement” and it's “supposed to be enforced by the flight attendants.” They said, “the rule is jetway to jetway, except it's OK to take it off for a minute to eat.” They said it's “100% a requirement” and “enforcement is not quite there yet.”

I told the American employee,

“I don't expect perfect enforcement… but I'd like to see somebody at least try.”

There are also cases where people have legitimate medical exceptions. The problem is that it's very hard for the rest of us to know if they do or not.

When it was time to book my second (and hopefully last) relocation trip, I called again to ask them if their policy was going to change, as I was having to decide between flying American or Delta. I told them that they risked losing me as a customer for good.

When DFW was my home airport, that would been an empty threat. But, from LAX, there is more competition and there are more options for me. I can choose based on safety.

The Voices of Different Customer Groups

The American Airlines rep said they've “had to go back and forth” internally about enforcing the requirement and that there's “been pushback” from some customers — they far they don't have the authority to enforce it in flight, other than boarding and deplaning.

In the flights I've taken, a vast majority of passengers are wearing masks. I'm guessing those people wearing masks would rather have everybody wearing them.

So, I told American that it doesn't seem like a good business to decision to avoid angering a very small minority of customers at the expense of angering the mask wearers. I don't get it. Maybe they are trying to avoid an angry tweet from the President.

In the News

I contacted a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of the reporters who had previously written about the new mask “requirement.” I told him about my experiences and he quoted me in the story. He got some of my details wrong, but hopefully he quoted the airline accurately.

Why airlines say travelers must wear COVID face masks, then don't enforce the rule

“American Airlines officials have acknowledged that, while they do require customers to wear masks prior to boarding a plane, they aren't enforcing the requirement once the airplane door closes.”

So how can they, in good conscience, call this a “requirement”?

A spokesperson contradicted what the unnamed “officials” from the airline said:

“American, like other U.S. airlines, requires customers to wear a face covering while on board, and this requirement is enforced at the gate while boarding,” American spokesman Josh Freed said in an email. “

It reminds me of a famous meme (and movie quote):

But, again, unnamed sources said something different:

“Privately, airline officials say they don't want flight crew members to potentially escalate an argument among passengers over masks.

For example, if a fight over masks were to ensue, a flight could be diverted from its original destination, which could potentially leave passengers stranded in a strange city. Such a predicament would run counter to the airline's primary goal of getting travelers from one place to another with minimal social contact.”

What I don't understand is that flight attendants are trained on how to enforce policies and how to de-escalate potential arguments.

I don't know if I believe American's twisted and tortured logic that says choosing to not enforce the mask policy is net-net better protecting us. No, actually, I don't believe that at all.

There are other news stories including this one:

Airlines Say Everybody Onboard Must Wear a Mask. So Why Aren't They?

“But travelers on recent flights said the rules are not being enforced. And flight attendants said they have been told not to confront passengers who opt to not follow them.”

It's not just an American Airlines problem.

Recent passengers on Delta Air Lines have posted on Twitter about fliers failing to wear masks (“What's the point in requiring if there is no follow through?” one man asked the airline in a tweet). Another Delta passenger wrote on Twitter that he asked a flight attendant about the mask rule after seeing a passenger, a flight attendant and the pilot without masks on. He was told that the rules couldn't be enforced.

So I Tried Delta

I have heard good things about Delta from some colleagues who did start traveling again for work. They saw near universal mask compliance (although that might have all been the passengers' doing) and one colleague told me that Delta was currently not serving alcohol in first class. Good.

This very recent article confirms this about Delta and says American is still serving in first class. So the two groups that American won't alienate are those who won't wear masks and those that won't go without booze for a few hours. Got it.

Delta's website and booking process make all of the same promises that American does:

Emails that go out before flights say the same:

My experiences on my two flight segments were a mixed bag.

The good: Delta's promise about not overfilling the planes seemed to be true.

“Delta has publicly said that it will limit first class seating capacity at 50% and main cabin at 60% through June 30, and earlier announced that it was resuming some flights next month.”

I could see this on the screens in the boarding area at both LAX and ATL:

First was 50% full (10 of 20). Comfort+ was 62.5% full and Main was 56.7% full.

Now, the guy in front of me (and one seat over) wasn't wearing a mask in the gate area. He very much stood out as the only one. He took his mask off after boarding and had it off the whole time. He touched his face A LOT. Again, if it's not concerned about getting the virus, I'd hope he would be concerned about potentially passing it along.

I wasn't happy about the lack of enforcement, but I felt better with the slightly greater distancing that a 50% full first class cabin provided.

Oh, the flight attendant DID ask the guy across from me on the other side of the plane to lift up his sweatshirt to make sure his seat belt was on. But, they ignored the maskless man. Not good.

Promise not kept. “Requirement” not really a requirement.”

Generally, there were two people in each row of four seats. The exception was a family of four that was all together in the fifth row. When I realized part way through the flight that the two seats behind me were empty, I just moved.

That provided more distance and I wish I had done it earlier.

Delta also boarded from back to front, to minimize people getting on board in the front or middle of coach and then having others walking past them. They did offer active duty military and first class the opportunity to board first, “or at any time during the flight.”

Next time, I'll take them up on the offer to board almost literally last. With fewer people on board, there's no need to fight for overhead bin space. I'll board last next time when I'm upgraded.

Delta did also hand out an individual Purell wipe or packet on each flight. I don't remember American doing that. I, of course, had my own hand sanitizer and some wipes.

The Wrong Countermeasures?

The airlines are all making a big deal about how much they're focusing on cleaning the planes better — overnight and between flights. They're bragging about electrostatic sprayers and other such technology. They brag about the expensive solutions, but ignore the cost-free countermeasure of requiring masks (or it's low cost if the airline provides a few).

Some recent studies show that the biggest risk for getting Covid-19 is direct person-to-person transmission from prolonged contact or proximity. It can be spread through surfaces, but it's not as likely.

TSA sometimes gets accused of “security theatre” — are some of these countermeasures that focus on surfaces a matter of “cleanliness theatre”?

I guess I'd rather have a “belt and suspenders” approach — cleaning surfaces, better distancing on board, and a hard requirement around masks (unless it's a legitimate health reason or short intervals of hydration).

Worried Also About Employee Safety

I do worry about airline employees. On both airlines, I've seen gate agents without masks.

For one flight, the American gate agent made many announcements about the need for masks and distancing. They literally made the announcement with their mask pulled down and while standing shoulder to shoulder with a maskless colleague.

For one Delta flight, the gate agent was making a PA announcement, standing to the slide of the clear plastic protective barrier, with a maskless jump seat employee standing directly in front of her across the counter.

Leaders need to lead by example. The airline employees and other airport workers should do the same — and it's in their own best interest to protect themselves and prevent any spread.

“If You Would”

My second Delta flight had an overhead announcement on board for passengers to wear masks “if you would.” I wish they'd make clear this is apparently a choice, not a “requirement.”

Please enforce your “requirement,” if you would.

Or stop saying masks are “required.”

We'll See More Enforcement?

So, I was writing this post today (after stewing over it for a while), I saw this news that seems encouraging on the surface:

U.S. Airlines Will Ban Fliers Who Refuse to Wear Face Masks

Remember, they also said masks were “required,” so I'll believe this when I see it.

Each airline can set its own rules, since Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao refuses to.

American's policy, which goes into effect on June 16, also says that passengers who don't follow the face masks rules could be denied future travel, but it gives no details on how that determination will be made. The other five airlines have not yet released details on their individual policies, but they will all last at least through the duration of the pandemic.

The AA policy statement:

“American, like other U.S. airlines, already requires customers to wear a face covering while on board aircraft…”

Except when they didn't.

We shall see…

Updates for the Return to LAX

I checked in for my return flight… and was shown this in the app.

Now to see if this is really enforced…

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

11 Comments
  1. Mark Graban says

    Second-hand stories from a friend:

    A friend who flew Southwest got kicked off the flight for asking the flight attendants to wear their masks. She took a picture and the flight attendant said that her taking the picture made all the flight attendants feel unsafe. In the comments, someone said their flight with United was very strict about proper mask wearing including asking someone to move their mask up to cover their nose. Another comment said that a different SW flight was very strict about mask wearing.

    And

    here’s what she said about her outbound flight where she didn’t get kicked off: “So here was a game played by the attendants on our first flight. When the passenger didn’t want to wear a mask, the attendant gave the passenger a can of water and said, “he doesn’t have to wear a mask while he is eating or drinking and he is drinking.” She handed his son a can of water too, he was about 15, he wouldn’t wear his mask either except around his ears…. like why? You would think they would be concerned but [shoulder shrug emoji].”

  2. Mark Graban says

    How often does “required” not really mean required in a hospital (for visitors or staff)?

  3. Mark Graban says

    According to reports on Twitter, American Airlines removed a man from the plane when he refused, before takeoff, to wear a mask.

    “Political activist Brandon Straka was removed from an American Airlines flight for refusing to wear a mask the day trade group Airlines for America announced that passengers who refuse to mask up can be blacklisted from flying.”

    It seems like he did this intentionally and filmed it as a political / promotional stunt.

    He complained about how it’s not “the law.” No, the airline can set their own rules and can remove you for not following crew instructions.

    I’m really surprised American enforced this. Good for them. I wonder how inconsistent they have been today? My guess is VERY inconsistent. American is consistent in their inconsistency.

    1. Mark Graban says

      The guy (I don’t want to link to him) claims an American Airlines manager told him it was a mistake to have removed him. Maybe that manager doesn’t know the new policy yet?

  4. Mark Welch says

    I was due to fly out to see my brother in Iowa today but last week I decided to postpone the trip until COVID is “over” so to speak, which in my mind will be after a vaccine has been widely released. Reading this post makes me feel even better about my decision. Thanks for this gemba walk through the friendly skies, Mark, and I hope you didn’t pick up any viruses during your travel.

    1. Mark Graban says

      I think that’s wise to wait, Mark…

  5. Mark Graban says

    Here is the complaint I filed with the US Department of Transportation.

    You can file a complaint here if you wish.

  6. Mark Graban says

    A report from yesterday:

    Airlines need to follow through on their commitments!

  7. James says

    You should be the leader of the health police. Arrogant SOB

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for your constructive comment. Be well.

  8. Mark Graban says

    As our understanding evolves… this article and study is reassuring… and shows how masks are helpful.

    Study: Risk Of Covid-19 Transmission On Planes ‘Virtually Nonexistent’ For Mask-Wearers

    “Passengers wearing masks are at a very low risk of contracting Covid-19 on planes, even during packed flights, according to a recent study from the Department of Defense and United Airlines which offers new insight into the safety of air travel amid the pandemic.

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