United Airlines said Monday that passengers who refuse to wear masks on board flights could be banned from traveling with the airline in the future.
The new policy takes effect on Thursday, June 18.
Most US airlines have added requirements in recent months for passengers to wear masks on board flights and, in some cases, in airport facilities or while boarding or disembarking the aircraft.
However, airlines have come under criticism for failing to enforce requirements or to provide clear guidelines surrounding the handling of non-compliant passengers. The lax enforcement has led to complaints from some other passengers, especially on flights that were relatively full.
Earlier on Monday, US airline industry lobbying organization Airlines for America (A4A) said that its member airlines would strengthen their respective mask policies and practices, which would include pre-flight communications, on-board announcements, and consequences for noncompliance.
The organization said that individual member airlines would detail their own “appropriate consequences for passengers who are found to be in noncompliance of the airline’s face covering policy up to and including suspension of flying privileges on that airline.”
A4A members that will strengthen their mask policies include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines. United was the first to announce the new policy.
United said that passengers who violate the policy will be banned from the airline for “duration of time to be determined pending a comprehensive incident review.”
“Every reputable health institution says wearing a mask is one of the most effective things people can do to protect others from contracting COVID-19, especially in places like an aircraft where social distancing is a challenge,” said Toby Enqvist, United’s chief customer officer, said in a press release. “We have been requiring our customers to wear masks onboard United aircraft since May 4 and we have been pleased that the overwhelming majority of passengers readily comply with our policy.”
“Today’s announcement is an unmistakable signal that we’re prepared to take serious steps, if necessary, to protect our customers and crew,” Enqvist added.
Flight attendants will inform passengers of the policy, offer to provide a mask, and warn them of the potential consequences before further action is taken, the airline said. A final decision about the passenger’s status with the airline will be made at a later point, and not on board.
“Wearing a mask is a critical part of helping make air travel safer,” Dr. James Merlino, chief clinical transformation officer at the Cleveland Clinic, said in the press release. The Cleveland Clinic is advising United on sanitary and risk-reduction procedures during the pandemic.
“The more people in a given space wearing masks, the fewer viral particles are making it into the space around them, decreasing exposure and risk,” Dr. Merlino added.