This spring, news about U.S. airlines has followed a familiar pattern. First, the airlines trumpet a new safety measure that the news media repeats, generating a round of praise.
Then someone exposes the announcement as a sham.
Airlines tell customers they can cancel flight reservations—only to refuse to issue cash refunds. Airlines announce they will leave middle seats open—only to renege on that vow in several ugly episodes. And airlines promise passengers generous compensation if they're bumped—only to strip away that benefit while we're distracted by virus coverage.
The mask has slipped—literally. The latest thing you thought airlines were doing that they're actually skipping?
Making passengers wear masks.
We can thank Reuters for exposing this one. At the start of May, the airlines announced en masse that they would be requiring face masks or cloth coverings for all passengers.
Now that the implementation dates for that announced policy have arrived, we can see that its enforcement is not happening.
As reported by Reuters, airlines are checking for masks upon boarding but once customers are in the confined space of the airline cabin, they can do as they please.
"The flight attendant’s role is informational, not enforcement, with respect to the face covering policy,” American Airlines told pilots in an in-house message, according to Reuters.
“If the customer chooses not to comply [with the policy]," American reportedly instructed flight attendants, "please encourage them to comply, but do not escalate further."
In other words, flight attendants will find no support from the head office if they try to press passengers to don masks during the pandemic.
Delta confirmed a similarly lax effort to Reuters.
Although nearly 188 countries are combating Covid-19 outbreaks with mask usage, the practice has been politicized in the United States.
For those who are old enough to remember, this battle might feel familiar.
Back in 1988, the public was demanding that airlines get rid of in-flight smoking sections. Rather than simply promising to give all passengers the right to smoke-free air, however, U.S. airlines resisted by cutting smoking sections on short flights but permitting them on flights longer than two hours.
Back then, the airlines were afraid of offending the tobacco industry. They feared that if they made all flights nonsmoking, customers who had been rallied by Big Tobacco would take their business elsewhere.
It seems insane now. No one questions the wisdom of a nonsmoking flight. Of course it isn't fair to make passengers inhale secondhand cigarette smoke in a confined cabin! That's why smoking on airplanes is now illegal.
But in 2020, we're seeing a replay of the resistance to smoking bans through the airlines' porous response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Like banning smoking sections, requiring passengers to wear masks prevents harmful exhalations from traveling to others. And as with banning smoking sections, this basic health precaution designed for the greater good has, bizarrely, been harnessed as a political issue (at least, inside the United States—people elsewhere in the world seem to understand that masks are a valuable courtesy).
The U.S. airlines, despite their great power, just don't have the courage to enforce mask safety.
Thirty-one years ago, the threat of "passive smoking" became such a hot issue that Congress finally had to step in and make the airlines' decision for them by banning smoking on domestic flights.
Today, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines, is calling for similar action.
“Airlines are implementing policies on the fly with essentially no coordination or direction from the federal government,” Nelson told Reuters. “We need federal requirements that mitigate risk during this pandemic and put the safety of crews and the traveling public first."
If we shouldn't be forced to inhale cigarette smoke on flights, we shouldn't be forced to inhale viral droplets on flights.
Unlike smoking bans, mask rules aren't going to last forever. No one's civil liberties are being permanently revoked by wearing a mask for a few hours out of consideration for others.
Is there anyone in charge—airlines, Congress—who has the spine to make sure the greater good is served?
The public is tired of fighting and clawing for every single scrap of safety.