Tired woman in virus protection face mask sleeping in empty airplane

US airlines seek to honor disability rights while enforcing mask use

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Accessibility advocate Justin Yarbrough is a huge proponent of passengers wearing masks, as required, when flying US commercial airlines amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the Airlines for America trade group (A4A) last week said its member airlines might revoke flying privileges for passengers who do not comply with their face covering policies, he expressed a concern: “What about those who have a health condition precluding mask use?”

It’s a fair question, given that the A4A’s strongly worded statement did not mention these special circumstances, saying: “All passengers are required to wear a face covering throughout the travel journey on the leading US airlines, as clearly stated on each airline’s website.”

The reality is that A4A’s commercial airline members – Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United – do in fact exempt passengers from wearing a face covering over their nose and mouth on the basis of medical condition or disability. Children under two years old are also excluded, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But one can perhaps make an educated guess as to why the airline association took such a broad-brush approach in its press release by not highlighting these specific exceptions to the policy.

Just as certain travelers abused the rules governing the carriage of service and emotional support animals – forcing regulators to enact stricter protocols – some passengers may make false medical claims to avoid wearing a mask amid the COVID-19 crisis, which would remove an important layer of protection for frontline employees and fellow passengers.

Let’s be clear: it’s unconscionable and duplicitous for able-bodied people to lie about having a medical condition or disability in order to avoid wearing a mask on an aircraft. Yet it’s not uncommon to see anti-maskers on social media urge fellow flyers to cite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as the reason for not wearing a mask, and some even include the Department of Justice’s seal in their online postings. The problem is serious enough that the DOJ has published a statement saying: “These postings were not issued by the Department and are not endorsed by the Department.”

Left out of the conversation are the members of the traveling public who do in fact legitimately qualify for an exemption, and the frontline employees who are forced to make that determination on the fly.

For Runway Girl Network operations manager Becca Alkema, the issue hits close to home because her now-deceased brother is the type of case that would have warranted an exception. “My brother was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. It is a disease that weakens the muscles and also includes a weakened respiratory system for him. It would have been impossible for him to wear a mask for five minutes let alone the duration of flight from airport to airport.” Her brother’s condition was so severe that determining his disability would require nothing more than a visual confirmation. But what about hidden disabilities that preclude mask use? While all high-risk individuals are being urged by the CDC to stay home if possible, is it reasonable for these individuals to seek accommodation from airlines amid the pandemic?

Under ADA and indeed the HIPAA Privacy Rule, businesses are generally limited in what documentation they can ask a customer to provide regarding a disability or health conditions, though some aspects are certainly being tested in business establishments during the crisis. Airlines need to tread carefully when querying passengers. And they appear to be doing just that.

Delta Air Lines

Delta is not requiring passengers to provide proof of a disability or medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. “No documentation is required. However, customers are encouraged to notify gate agents upon boarding. The agent will then notify flight attendants of all mask exemptions via documentation in the customer’s record,” the airline tells Runway Girl Network.

As to whether there is a way to ensure other passengers know that the unmasked passenger holds an exemption, Delta says: “No, we do not tell customers about other customers’ exemptions as in line with health privacy laws, customers are not required to disclose or prove their specific medical condition.”

United Airlines

United, meanwhile, says it is “not asking customers to prove that they have a disability or medical condition preventing them from wearing a mask. If they tell us they have a disability or medical reason to not wear a mask, we will trust them.”

Regarding whether it’s possible to ensure other passengers know that an unmasked passenger holds an exception, United says, “Our flight attendants are trained on de-escalating issues on board. When possible, we will work to re-seat customers who are unable to wear masks.”

Southwest Airlines

Southwest may have landed on a way to avoid breeching health privacy laws while requiring more than a passenger’s word. The carrier tells RGN:

If a customer has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering or mask, they should speak to a Southwest representative, and Southwest reserves the right to request a medical certificate confirming the customer can complete the flight safely without medical attention and/or that the customer’s condition does not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others on the flight.

The airline says: “Requiring face coverings or masks encompasses one way Southwest will support a ‘new normal’ in travel, while continuing to demonstrate the same warmth, care, and hospitality that our customers expect from us every day. During this pandemic, we must also partly rely upon common courtesy and responsible actions, as a society, to ensure compliance with public health guidance. With this in mind, we ask that customers comply with the policy out of respect for the safety and well-being of other customers and our employees.”

American Airlines

For its part, American tells RGN: “The safety and well-being of our customers and team members is paramount. Our policies — like required face coverings on board — reflect that, and we expect our customers to comply with those policies when they choose to fly with American. Airlines for America can share the industry perspective on this. We appreciate what DOT and FAA have done so far to help us protect the health of our customers and team members.

“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.”

American is clearly already enforcing its face covering policy. The carrier recently made headlines for removing a passenger from a flight for refusing to wear a face covering. As highlighted by CNN, a video clip posted by a New York Times reporter – which doesn’t capture the whole argument and provides audio but no images of the speakers – includes an exchange about medical conditions and a female voice is heard asking about medical documentation.

Blocking seats

In addition to masks, onboard social distancing – while difficult – is seen by some US carriers as another line of defense amid the COVID-19 crisis. Delta has set a standard amongst its peers for capping its Main Cabin seating at 60% by blocking seats through 30 September. And Southwest is keeping one-third of its seats empty through at least 30 September. This obviously does not guarantee that people will be physically distanced by the CDC-recommended 6ft.

While most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, notes the CDC, the difficulty in social distancing on crowded flights “may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19”. That is the crux of why masks are considered so important by health officials and airlines.

Cabin crew safety is also essential. “Since flight attendant ability to practice social distancing is challenging in the aircraft cabin and on most other forms of public transportation, it is essential that we wear masks so long as COVID-19 remains a threat to public health. Most carriers require flight attendants to wear masks while on duty,” says the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “Not only are masks important for safety, they are essential for building trust in air travel again.”

A black female flight attendant with a blue scarf wears a white mask on board an aircraft

The AFA-CWA represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, serving as a voice for flight attendants at their workplace, in the industry, in the media and on Capitol Hill. Image: AFA-CWA

Meanwhile, airlines and their frontline employees are clearly in an unenviable predicament – grappling with passengers who refuse to wear a face covering, while trying to accommodate those with legitimate health exemptions.

It’s little wonder, then, why A4A members are threatening the (some might call) nuclear option – revoking flying privileges for those who don’t comply in good faith.

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