LAST UPDATED NOVEMBER 18, 2020
With no federal regulations to unify their responses, the major U.S. airlines have to figure out how to deal with Covid-19 in their own ways.
All of them have instituted new full-cabin cleaning procedures, but after that, protective measures vary.
Let's start with what the big North American carriers have in common. One is face masks. For flying purposes, a mask can be any secured cloth such a scarf or bandana, as long as it covers your nose and mouth (there are exceptions for small children). Masks with exhaust valves are generally forbidden. Plastic face shields may be worn in addition to masks, but not in place of them. For all airlines, employees and crew members will be masked. But there are subtle differences in how masks are enforced or supplied, so each airline's policy is explained below.
Be aware that although all airlines claim wearing masks is part of their official policies, not all of them are actually enforcing the use of masks. The safety gap has become so severe that two U.S. senators have begged the Trump Administration to standardize rules for the health of all passengers.
In cases when seat assignments are blocked for social distancing purposes, customers can usually ask the airline to unblock those seats so parties can sit together. Magazines and menus have been removed from seatback pockets.
Most airlines have closed their lounges and are encouraging customers to use virtual check-in and ticketing. Passengers will be asked to check in their luggage at kiosks and scan their own mobile boarding passes at the gate, if possible, but assistance will be provided to customers who require it.
Most airlines are not allowing checked pets but will allow service animals and carry-on pets as long as they meet requirements. Procedures for unaccompanied minors remain unchanged.
Here's what the airlines say they're doing. We'll keep this list of safety measures updated as procedures develop.
Departure times: Gates close 30 minutes before departure (previously 15 minutes).
Masks: "For those over the age of 2, wearing a face covering while travelling is a mandatory requirement issued by Transport Canada. All non-compliance cases will be reported to Transport Canada, and could result in a financial penalty."
Middle seats: The airline is spreading customers around "to have as few people sitting next to one another as possible." If the airline cannot "accommodate adequate social distancing, customers can choose to travel on a later flight at no additional cost."
Temperature checks and tracing: Per the Canadian government, all passengers undergo temperature checks. Per Canadian regulations, when a passenger has been identified as coronavirus-positive after the flight ends, "in most situations, information of the persons situated 3 rows ahead and behind the infected person are provided to the health authority."
Food and beverage: Economy: "For flights under 2 hours, a complimentary water bottle service will be available (meal and bar service will not be offered). On flights over 2 hours, for customers who pre-purchased a meal online, or who purchased a Latitude fare, a meal box will include a pre-selected meal and snack item from the Air Canada Bistro." Also, "for Air Canada Rouge, iPads will no longer be offered."
Supplies: A free kit provided to passengers includes 30 ml hand sanitizer, 2 antiseptic wipes, gloves, mask (non-surgical), 250 ml water bottle, headset, and a snack.
Masks: "Face masks are required for all guests 12 and over and employees. Mask and face covering exceptions include: children under age 2, anyone with trouble breathing, anyone who cannot remove a mask without assistance or anyone with a disability that prevents wearing a mask." If a passenger forgets to bring a mask, the airline will provide one.
Middle seats: Select seats blocked for purchase until Jan. 6, 2020. Passengers who want to sit together can make the request with reservations in advance or at the airport on the day of travel. "If you're uncomfortable with the distance between you and others on your day of flight, please speak with a customer service agent about your options."
Food and beverage: Free soft drinks, water, coffee, or tea. For flights longer than three hours, passengers may pre-purchase a fruit-and-cheese platter via the airline app.
Entertainment: Tablets have been removed except on flights to and from Hawaii and Florida.
Supplies: Bring your own, but the airline warns against using commercial wipes on leather seats: "The cloth might look dirty afterward, but it’s actually the leather dye color that’s coming off." Starting in July, individual hand-sanitizer wipes will also be available on board.
Masks: They're encouraged but not required.
Middle seats: Allegiant will not promise to leave seats empty for social distancing. Instead, "customers are encouraged not to book the middle seat, unless it’s to ensure families can sit together." Customers may request to be notified if a flight reservations are more than 65% full.
Food and beverage: Food, drink, and alcohol sold via the airline's app. Refreshments are sealed and single-serve. There is one service per flight, but passengers may request additional service.
Supplies: A free kit provided to passengers includes a "single-use face mask and two sanitizing wipes."
Masks: The airline's official guidance: "Be sure your face covering is on before you board the plane and wear it during your flight." Earlier in the pandemic, there were reports the airline was not enforcing the use of masks during fights, but the airline now claims passengers "may be denied boarding and future travel on American" if they refuse to wear one. "You can briefly take your face covering off to eat or drink, but you must put it back on when you’re done." American will not promise it can always supply passengers with masks.
Middle seats: American Airlines will not promise to leave them empty. As of July 1, American Airlines is booking its cabins to full capacity. If a flight is full, the airline claims it will give passengers the opportunity to book another flight without an extra fee.
Food and beverage: Water, canned drinks, and juice by request only. For flights longer than 900 miles, free Biscoff cookies are also distributed. No snacks or food are available for sale. Alcohol is not served on domestic flights. Alcohol and meals are only served on international flights.
Supplies: Sanitizing wipes or gels and face masks will be provided to customers "as supplies and operational conditions allow."
Delta Air Lines
Masks: The airline's official guidance: "All customers must wear a mask or face covering, and extra masks and wellness kits will be available at check-in if you need one." There were early reports the airline was not enforcing the use of masks during fights, but that seems to have changed. Customers who indicate they have a condition that prevents them from safely wearing a mask must have their exception pre-approved by going through a "Clearance-to-Fly" application process before their flight.
Middle seats: Until March 31, 2021, Delta Air Lines is blocking middle seats in Main Cabin, Delta Comfort+, and Delta Premium Select. (For customers in parties of three or more, middle seats will appear as available for booking to allow families and travel companions to sit together.) On routes where flights near the capped capacity, the airline will "look for opportunities to upsize to a larger aircraft type or add more flights." Flights are boarded from back to front.
Food and beverage: Passengers receive a sealed snack and small bottle of water. Flight attendants do not serve alcohol, ice, or plastic cups, and there is no meal service on domestic flights. Alcohol is only served to passengers in premium cabins (First Class and Comfort+), and only on flights longer than 500 miles.
Supplies: "Care kits" with mask and sanitizing wipe will be provided to customers "on request." Also: "All blankets and bedding are laundered after every flight and Main Cabin pillows disposed of after use."
Masks: "All Frontier customers will be required to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth throughout their journey.... This level of protection is important for everyone’s well-being and if you don’t wear an approved face covering, you may lose future travel privileges on Frontier." Passengers must supply their own masks.
Middle seats: Frontier Airlines will not promise to leave them empty.
Temperature checks: Screenings for all passengers and team members will be required "prior to boarding flights. . . . 100.4 degrees or higher will not be allowed to fly, including crew members."
Food and beverage: Bottled water sold only upon passenger request.
Supplies: "Bring your own gloves, hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes?."
Masks: "All travelers 2 years and older" must wear a face covering "over their nose and mouth throughout their journey, including during check-in, boarding, while in flight and deplaning.. Customers with conditions that prevent them from wearing a face covering should postpone travel until this temporary requirement is no longer in place."
Middle seats: They're "blocked for purchase on our larger aircraft, and most aisle seats are blocked for purchase on our smaller aircraft." This action is currently scheduled to last through December 1, 2020. From that date until January 5, 2021, plane capacity will be capped at 85% and some middle seats (but not all of them) will be left empty for people that request to be placed beside them; instructions on how to request an assignment beside a vacant seat can be found on this page of JetBlue's website. Aircraft boarding is back-to-front.
Temperature checks: JetBlue has added mandatory inspections for employees.
Food and beverage: Snacks served in pre-sealed and single-use packaging. Pre-packaged snack boxes for sale as usual.
Supplies: Disinfectant wipes are provided to customers upon request. "We also encourage customers to bring their own headphones since buy-onboard sales of earbuds has been suspended."
Masks: They're required. "It is highly encouraged to bring your own hand sanitizer and face covering. If you forget your face covering at home, a mask will be available for you."
Middle seats: Southwest doesn't use seat assignments, but it has pledged to limit capacity on every flight so customers can maintain distance on their own. Capacity will be suppressed so middle seats can be left open through at least November 30.
Food and beverage: "We are serving water and snacks on flights over 250 miles, when available. Straws are available on request. For all other flights, snack and beverage service is suspended until further notice to limit close interactions."
Supplies: Free wipes are also available for passengers.
Masks: "Spirit requires appropriate face coverings during your entire journey with us. The only exception to this policy is children under age 2." Passengers who are "unable to wear an appropriate face covering for any reason, including medical, will not be permitted to travel with us at this time." Passengers should supply their own masks.
Middle seats: "Some flights may be more full than others. If you have any questions about your specific flight, please feel free to contact us."
Food and beverage: Service (snack, drink, alcohol) is by passenger request only with a debit or credit card; food and beverage has never been free on Spirit.
Supplies: Passengers should bring their own. If you forget, Spirit will sell you one for $3, but only if supplies permit.
Masks: "Travelers who aren't wearing their face coverings in the airport or on board may be refused transport and could also lose their travel privileges on future United flights. Children younger than 2 years old are exempt." The airline claims that passengers who do not comply "will be placed on an internal travel restriction list" to prohibit future travel on United flights.
Middle seats: United will not promise to keep middle seats empty. "For regularly scheduled flights that are expected to be fairly full, we’ll let you change your flight with no change fee or receive a travel credit for your trip. We'll do our best to contact you about 24 hours before your departure time so you can decide before you arrive at the airport."
Temperature checks: United has instituted inspections for employees at its hub airports, but not at all airports.
Food and beverage: Refreshments are served in pre-sealed and single-use packaging but Economy passengers won't receive one unless the flight is longer than 2 hrs. 20 min. Starting Nov. 17, alcohol sold as a test on some major routes that serve Denver. For full details, consult United's inflight dining info page.
Supplies: Sanitizing wipes are provided to passengers upon boarding. "We encourage you to bring and use your own face covering. However, if you don't have a face covering, our customer service agents will be able to provide a face covering at no cost."