Masks on a Plane

Masks on a plane FALike clockwork every year, a journalist will contact me to ask the same question I’ve been asked by a dozen journalists before him: if I think passengers who dress nicely have a better chance of getting a free upgradeto first class.

My answer is always the same, not what frequent flierswithout top-tier status want to hear. While a tailored suit might increase your odds by say 10% maybe, kindness probably works a teeny bit better, only because very few passengers smile or say please AND thank you while making eye contact at the same time. Before COVID-19, flights were full and upgrade lists were long so it didn’t really matter what anyone wore. Now might be another story.

I’ve been a flight attendant for over 20 years, so I’m quite familiar with not only your odds of being upgraded on certain routes, but also how passengers behaved before COVID-19. People were quick to overreact before face masks became an issue. I point this out because I recently saw a tweet where someone tried to blame bad passenger behavior on COVID19. Lack of respect is a problem on airplanes, and it’s been that way long before anyone entertained wearing a mask.

On social media I’ve seen a lot of people compare what’s happening now to 9/11. The airline industry was hit hard by 9/11. As a New York-based flight attendant who lives in Los Angeles and is from Texas, I know for a fact that other states didn’t feel 9/11 like New York did. This is why the pandemic is a million times worse than 9/11. It affects everyone. The entire world. The airline industry isn’t suffering alone this time.

Like 9/11, it’s become political. Unlike 9/11, people aren’t coming together to support each other, they’re tearing each other apart by hyperfocusing on face masks as the symbolic defining line in a growing battle between civil liberties and health.

Reporters still ask me about “fashion” but they’re no longer focused on the odds of getting an upgrade, they’re asking whether flight attendants will enforce new airline requirements that passengers wear face masks.

My airline, a major U.S. carrier, stopped “forcing” passengers to do things years ago. Approximately five years ago my airline started to train flight crew to “remind” passengers to do things instead of “forcing” passengers to do things. We became Reminders, not Enforcers, which felt strange after being trained to do the opposite for so long. The seatbelt sign became a suggestion, rather than a rule. At the time I didn’t realize just how powerful social media was, even though I knew it was more powerful than most people did. Airlines will do anything to avoid situations from going viral. This makes my job a lot easier because now I don’t have to argue with anyone. I don’t have to care.

Photo Credit: Vivienne Chapleo (Wavejourney)

The problem is I do care. I care because I’ve been trained to keep passengers safe. I care because I know the same rules that keep passengers safe also keep crew safe. I know that when some passenger’s don’t follow the rules, they put themselves and other passengers at risk. I care but I keep it to myself instead of arguing about why it’s important to wear your seat belt or stay seated when the sign is on.

I took a leave of absence from work, so I am not acutely aware of what flight attendants are facing in the skies amid the pandemic. But I wasn’t at all shocked to see the media reporting that airlines had told flight crews not to force passengers to wear masks in flight, even though they require passengers to wear them to board a flight.

The fact that masks have become so politicized about doesn’t make it easy for airlines. The fact that every state and even some cities within the same states have different rules regarding lockdowns and social distancing and whether to require masks makes things even more difficult for airlines. As much as I want passengers to wear masks on flights, I know there’s not much airlines can do to make travel 100% safe for passengers and crew.

I believe in fighting for individual freedoms. I also believe that viral load matters. A flight attendant might be OK on one flight, but that same crew member might not be OK traveling on several flights a day, 15 days or more a month surrounded by passengers who demand to exercise their right to go maskless instead of helping to protect the health of crew or their fellow passengers.

A lot of people I don’t know on social media like to remind me that face masks are worn to prevent spreading the virus, not to avoid contracting COVID-19. This is when I remind those same people that it can take ups to 14 days to show symptoms. Then I ask how they’d feel about a passenger sneezing as they walked down the aisle or a flight attendant who has yet to show symptoms serving their mother a drink.

I wonder if those who scream the loudest about their rights to go maskless are frequent fliers? I assume mask-hating advocates work from home or they don’t work in a confined space with very many people. I assume if they do work with people, there’s a way to escape from coworkers when they start sneezing and coughing. Because I don’t hear a lot of grocery workers or ER nurses complaining about wearing face masks. Maybe they’re too busy working to complain.

I hope passengers and flight crew can set their political beliefs aside and be respectful to each other during this difficult time. I hope passengers and flight crew choose to wear masks on airplanes to help protect each other. I believe most people will comply but there’s always one who is eager to cause problems to create a video that will go viral. Nobody can stop someone from doing something they’re determined to do.

Unfortunately travel can be risky for some people. Those people shouldn’t depend on an airline to protect them. Passengers should be prepared to be seated next to someone who doesn’t care how old they are or what sort of health issues they have. People were disrespectful before COVID-19, so I imagine it’s only going to get worse. If hardcore anti-mask advocates are booking flights, nothing will change. But if the majority of people continue to stay home, airlines may work harder to encourage passengers to return to the sky. Until then, I’m a Reminder, not an Enforcer.

On that note I’d like to remind you to be kind in the comments.

5 Replies to “Masks on a Plane”

  1. Having worked many long haul flight from DFW, I can only wonder how many crew and passengers would have not caught some airborne illness, had everyone worn a mask. Now I use the eyemasks as an extra layer of safety.

  2. You are entitled to your beliefs – as I am to mine. Individual freedoms should include whether or not to wear a mask. I choose not to wear one. I choose instacart instead of going to the market. I choose to walk alone. I choose to wfh instead of the office.
    Long haul flights are uncomfortable enough without being forced to wear something over your mouth and nose for 12 hrs. You write that “reporting that airlines had told flight crews not to force passengers to wear masks in flight”. That’s because you are paying for a service and should not be forced to do anything you don’t want to do.
    If you want to look at the data – the amount of time you touch your mask, then face, then mask and so on defeats the purpose of wearing a mask. I choose to fly after 9-11. I choose to not wear a mask. I work hard. I pay my taxes. I wear my seat-belt. I wear my belt on the plane always. I will not be forced to give up my freedom.

  3. Well written!! Good to here the perspective of a flight attendant… I thought I was one of few to think people on planes are extremely rude…

  4. Several years ago I was flying from Calcutta to London via Delhi; thence Vancouver. A man got on in Calcutta who coughed, sneezed and snorted all the way to Delhi where he got off. At the time I thought he was just being a drama queen but a couple of days after I landed back in Vancouver I had the worst flu I have ever had. Maybe a coincidence but I doubt it. If these bozos who refuse to wear a mask in a tightly enclosed space such as a plane were just endangering themselves I would say let it be. The gene pool could stand to be edited; let them collect their “Darwin Award”. Unfortunately they are a danger to everyone around them.

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