Masks on a Plane: It’s Up to Airlines to #MASA — Make AirTravel Safe Again


UPDATE: Based on some responses I’ve received from researchers, I can’t consider this diagram accurate for the time being. I keep talking to people, so this might or might not change. Just to clarify: this revision doesn’t mean that my opinion about using masks for preventing the coronavirus spread has changed, but I won’t resort to questionable arguments even to support something I believe in. Thanks to reader Neil who pointed out this probable inaccuracy! 

So far, available studies suggest that a mask you’re wearing in close proximity to others protects:

  • 30% => yourself from the others
  • 95% => others from yourself
  • 98.5% => yourself and the others when everyone wears them.

The new initiative from the major airline lobbyist Airlines for America (A4A) threatens unruly passengers for refusing to wear a mask on board. The A4A statement is big on big words, such as vigorously enforcing, putting rigor, very serious, stepping up enforcement, etc.

There’s only one question left.

“Or what?”

Or what, punk? Here is “what!”

Consequences for Noncompliance: Each carrier will determine the appropriate consequences for passengers who are found to be in noncompliance with the airline’s face covering policy up to and including suspension of flying privileges on that airline.

Wait, what! That’s … um, supposed to be scary?

Several airlines have already issued “enforcement” statements

American Airlines Strengthens Requirement That Customers Wear Face Coverings on Board

Here and hereafter, boldings are mine.

American now may also deny future travel for customers who refuse to wear a face covering

Some passengers are exempt from the face covering requirement, such as young children and those with a disability or medical reason for why they cannot wear a face covering. The policy also does not apply while eating or drinking.

Delta: 3 things to know about Delta’s mask-wearing requirement

We take our mask requirement … seriously. That’s why customers are not allowed to board a Delta aircraft without wearing a mask and must follow crew member instructions to properly wear a mask in flight. Those who choose not to comply with this or other safety requirements risk future flight privileges with Delta

United Airlines Strengthens Onboard Mask Policy …

While the overwhelming majority of passengers are complying with United’s mandatory policy, starting on June 18, any passenger that does not comply when onboard a United flight will be 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.

United currently requires all passengers to wear a face covering onboard its flights … The only exceptions to this policy are individuals who have a medical condition or a disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering, those who cannot put on or remove a face covering themselves and small children. Customers are expected to wear a mask for the duration of the flight, except when eating or drinking.

Wow, that changes everything (not!)

Now no one will be caught dead without a mask on a plane. Or take it off during the flight. Or pull it down below their nose. Or even downer, to their chin. Or pull it in an opposite direction to cover their eyes (hey, a mask is a mask is a mask, right?) .

That’s it, problem solved.


Unless …

Unless a pax claims a medical condition. That’s all it takes. What condition? Who cares? Doctor’s note? Not required. You’re good to fly, sir/ma’am. We trust you.

Actually, lying isn’t even necessary. You’re allowed to eat or drink, right? Mask off. Who says you can’t eat your sandwich for the duration of your flight or drink your soda for 90 minutes? Who dares tell you how fast to chew your food?

Seriously? Yes, seriously. People who refuse to wear masks on a plane or in any close quarters during the worst health crisis of the last 102 years will gleefully use every trick in the book.

And do.

Not all maskholes are deranged

Some mask deniers are indeed sufficiently insane and politically twisted, but not all of them. There are those who might well understand the risks; they just don’t want to be inconvenienced. A maskhole on a plane full of sane people has a much better protection from his masked seatmates than others from him or her.

95% vs 30%.

That individual might well believe (and she wouldn’t be totally wrong) that the risk to herself not wearing a mask on a plane is so small that she can easily disregard it. And because such individual might believe she is perfectly healthy, the rest of the passengers can stuff it.

Which is why the airline masks on a plane rules must be enforced with a draconian efficiency. Maskholes must know they can’t get around them in a pinch.

I’ve been ranting nonstop on the virtues of using masks in public settings. It’s unfortunate that our national and international health organizations have been sending so many mixed signals at the time when the most desperate thing we need is clarity. But it’s finally clear as day that cheap and simple face masks protect everyone, including the wearer.

Why on earth are we still having this conversation?

Hollow threats with no teeth

There are enough holes in threats from A4A, American, Delta, and United to fly a few planeloads through. If you want something to be done, don’t just threaten a maskhole whose goal is to circumvent your rules here and now with “future flight privileges.” Make it more difficult for them here and now, not in the future!

This here is a problem.

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.

Why couldn’t the U.S. authorities in cooperation with the airlines have come up with something like the Dutch and KLM did? Can it be because the Dutch Prime Minister is not a nevermasker?

But what if there are genuine medical conditions?

First of all, the conditions preventing someone from wearing a face mask are rare. But my 82-year-old mom with several comorbidities can’t cover/wear a mask over her nose for longer than a few minutes. So they do exist.

Still, if you know in advance that you’re going to have 2 or 3 passengers with genuine medical conditions who won’t wear masks, wouldn’t that make it easier to plan ahead with the seating? Fortunately, their medical conditions mostly boil down to not being able to spell HIPAA.

Most Americans aren’t crazy

Since there is no federal mask regulations (FAA refused to rule on requiring masks on a plane as recently as June 16), only airlines can put an end to this outrageous behavior — and they must, for both our sake and theirs. Not only because maskholes threaten the health of their own crew members and passengers, but because their bottom line is threatened too.

Most people do wear masks on the plane. That even includes children who don’t have to, but luckily, have loving parents who understand the risks.

There are very few who would defy the masks rules, as well as common sense and elementary courtesy to their fellow human beings, but they make everyone’s life harder and more dangerous. Fine! They want to make their bed – let them lie in it.

Getting rid of maskholes on planes or making them comply with the mask regulations (however begrudgingly) is not only good for public health – it’s also good for airlines’ bottom line. There are more normal people than mask deniers, so math is on the airlines’ side. Sensible people won’t start flying for leisure unless they know that everyone is on the same page.

UPDATE: Yesterday’s AA announcement of banning self-promoter and political hack Brandon Straka who refused to wear a mask on an AA flight is very welcome news. Not nearly enough to make sure those things don’t happen, but a step in the right direction.


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I want to be able to travel again, and I want to do it as safe as possible. Masks are clearly part of the solution. Too bad their use has come to represent a political stance. (I wandered over to OMAAT today and the comments section is exploding with the arguments. Incredible!)


Ha! Each person who read your “big baby” comment was just caught thinking “yeah, that describes the guys who are not doing the same as me” (both the mask and no-maskers)


I do wish airline would enforce their mask requirements better (I was on a plane yesterday behind someone wearing his mask as a sleeping mask) and there does seem to be some evidence cloth masks help, at least when worn properly (and N95 masks help even more, though are even harder to wear properly and uncomfortable to boot).   While the image you lead with is illustrative of the point we are all better off when all wear masks, the numbers in that image are basically pulled out of thin air and almost certainly dramatically overstate the contributions of masks.… Read more »


Agree with your points – as mentioned I just dislike the image being treated as the gospel. I’ve seen it around town for a few months and grimace every time. Overstating one’s points just allows the skeptical to tune.   Only thing I’d add is that whatever the situation with cloth masks vs medical masks vs N95 masks is that the airlines are (I believe) only requiring face coverings. Certainly on my two flights this weekend I’d guess half the passengers had cloth masks or other improvised face coverings while the rest had a range of surgical masks, N95 masks,… Read more »

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