Coronavirus and plane travel: JetBlue first US airline to make passengers wear face masks

JetBlue Airways will require passengers to wear face masks or other face coverings beginning May 4, becoming the first US airline to do so as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The move by the New York-based airline comes amid increasing calls from airline union leaders, consumer groups and elected officials about the need for face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, reassure travellers it is safe to fly.

On Monday, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn, a member on the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent a letter to FAA administrator Stephen Dickson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, urging them to require face masks.

Cohen said he flew from Washington, DC, to Charlotte, North Carolina, on American Airlines last week and noticed some flight attendants and passengers without face masks. The result, he said: "Each person's health and safety was unnecessarily put at risk."

"We know that masks are one of the most effective tools to mitigate people's risk of exposure when those around them are also wearing masks," Cohen said in the letter. "As air travel continues to increase while the country slowly starts to reopen, it's imperative that the flying public feel safe and comfortable in doing so. This should include the requirement of masks, which will accomplish this goal and protect both crew members and passengers."

Canada is a step ahead of the United States in flight safety moves as the coronavirus crisis continues, last week adding a new policy that requires air travellers to cover their faces at the airport and on planes.

JetBlue said its decision is based on guidelines from the CDC encouraging all individuals to wear a face covering in public to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The airline has required that flight attendants wear masks since April 19, joining United, Frontier, Delta and American. Delta and American announced new policies on that front Monday.

"Wearing a face covering isn't about protecting yourself, it's about protecting those around you," Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's president and chief operating officer, said in a statement announcing the change. "This is the new flying etiquette. Onboard, cabin air is well circulated and cleaned through filters every few minutes but this is a shared space where we have to be considerate of others. We are also asking our customers to follow these CDC guidelines in the airport as well."

JetBlue passengers will have to wear a masks or other face covering during airport check-in, on the plane and when they get off the plane.

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The airline said it will notify passengers about the new requirement via email before their flight and at the airport. One exception: small children who are not able to keep a face mask on.

JetBlue said it will have a small number of masks for passengers who don't bring their own.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, praised JetBlue's face mask requirement and renewed her call for the DOT and HHS to require all airlines to require passengers wear face masks.

"All airlines should follow JetBlue's lead, including its efforts to fully communicate the change before it becomes effective next week so that flight attendants are not put in the position of being enforcers without information and backing from the airline," Nelson said in a statement late Monday.

Delta, which recommends travellers wear a mask but hasn't made it a requirement yet, has been providing masks to travelers who don't bring them.

And American Airlines said on Monday that it will begin offering face masks and sanitising wipes or gels to passengers in early May.

"We are looking out for our customers' well-being to give them peace of mind while they travel with us," Kurt Stache, American's senior vice president of customer experience, said in a statement. "We're moving quickly on these enhancements and we'll continue to improve the travel experience for our customers and team members as we navigate these times together."

TNS

See also: AirAsia unveils new flight attendant uniforms for COVID-19

See also: New economy seat design could solve social distancing on planes

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