Flight Attendants Are Now on the Front Line of the Mask Wars

DeDeHow do airlines keep passengers safe during a pandemic when face masks have become the symbolic defining line in a growing battle between civil liberties and health?

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that airlines can’t physically force passengers to wear masks in flight. Flight attendants can’t go around gluing masks on people’s faces or yell at passengers until they submit. The fact that every state and even some cities within the same states have different rules regarding masks makes things even more difficult for airlines and the flight crews who are stuck in a flying tube at 30,000 feet during a mask war.

You know that part in the safety demonstration when the flight attendant holds up the oxygen mask and reminds you to put your mask on first, and then assist others? Well, that’s pretty much all you can do. Protect yourself, and pray that others care enough to do the same.

After Airlines for America, the main airline-industry trade organization, announced that its members would vigorously enforce rules about face coverings and possibly ban passengers from future flights if they refuse to comply, reporters began tweeting about airlines’ “toughened” face mask policies.

Personally, I wouldn’t use the word “toughen.” It sounds like not much has changed, at least not in flight. And judging from some of the airlines’ specific policies, it sounds like the priority is to keep things calm rather than enforce the rules.

Will there really be consequences for passengers who refuse and thus endanger other passengers and crew members? We saw one bit of evidence this week when American Airlines removed a passenger from a New York-to-Dallas flight after he refused to wear a mask. The passenger, a conservative activist named Brandon Straka, was also temporarily banned from the airline…until face coverings are no longer required for customers.”

Will this now become the rule…or just an exception? If my 20 years of experience as a flight attendant are any indication, the exception is more likely. Consequences don’t seem to exist in Airline World, unless you’re a flight attendant who calls in sick. Or one who wears the wrong kind of face covering.

Without an FAA regulation with teeth — like the one that banned smoking on flights years ago — is there really a new mask policy? The goal seems more designed to de-escalate the issue than to to get tough on the issue.

United, for instance, plans to “enforce” the new policy by having a flight attendant remind passengers who aren’t wearing masks to wear one in flight, as if all the passengers wearing masks around them isn’t already a reminder that something strange like A PANDEMIC is going on.

If that doesn’t work, a reminder card — which sounds sort of like a time-out card — will be issued to the maskless passenger. If that doesn’t work, flight attendants will write a report about the passenger. The airline will investigate and it might revoke the passenger’s flying privileges.

Key word here is might.

American Airlines plans to do something similar. Only there won’t be a reminder card. American announced that it believes that face coverings are important, so passengers will see more reminders at the airport and on the plane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad there’s a policy. I’m glad the airlines are trying to be more aggressive. But since the pandemic emerged, there’s been no consistency in how the airlines handled the mask issue.

When the pandemic first exploded, flight attendants at American Airlines were barred from wearing masks; one manager told a crew member he couldn’t wear a mask and to use sick time to protect himself if he didn’t feel safe at work. After the manager’s voice message went viral, masks were mandated for flight attendants — so long as they were of a “neutral color.”

After cloth masks were mandated, another flight attendant was harassed by her manager for wearing a medical grade face shield as an extra layer of protection to work. The flight attendant purchased the face shield after she was informed that a passenger who had tested positive for Covid-19 had been on one of her flights. According to the manager, the plastic shield did not fit airline image standards and made passengers feel uncomfortable. Only cloth masks were allowed.

How can we protect passengers if we aren’t even allowed to protect ourselves?

More on this later.

Let’s go back to the word “enforce” in connection to the new face mask policy that’s full of reminders. Are we enforcing reminders?

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 attendants to “remind” passengers to do things instead of “forcing” them. 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, or more precisely, confrontations, 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.

The problem is I do care. I care because I’ve been trained to keep passengers safe. I know that when some passenger’s don’t follow the rules, they put themselves and other passengers at risk. It made me question my role as a safety professional. Or should I say safety suggester?

Did you know the first flight attendants were nurses? The very first flight attendant, Ellen Church, not only was a trained nurse, but also a pilot. In 1930, commercial airlines didn’t hire female pilots, so Church successfully convinced Boeing Air Transport to hire nurses as a way to help convince passengers that flying was safe.

You’ve heard of the book “Coffee, Tea or Me,” originally published as a memoir written by a stewardess named Trudy Baker. What most people don’t know is that it was really written by a man named Donald Bain who worked in public relations for American Airlines. The publisher hired two Eastern Airlines stewardesses to pose as the authors for book tours and television appearances. Today, the book is shelved in the fiction section of the library.

We’ve come a long way, Babe. Or have we?

When I first started flying, before social media existed, back when I felt more like a safety professional vs. a safety suggester, I never joked about putting on lipstick or fixing my hair real quick when a passenger called me over to complain about someone or something on a flight. Before social media, I couldn’t imagine that people who weren’t even on my flight might analyze the way I looked or the sound of my voice shouting commands during an emergency evacuation.

That’s what happened after a YouTube video went viral. I couldn’t believe the number of comments from people who wrote that the sound of the flight attendant’s voice gave them more anxiety than the actual emergency. This prompted a news story focusing on hysterical flight attendants.

Social media has changed my job, no doubt, and image is more important than ever in Airline World. Marketing safety isn’t as much fun if flight attendants are wearing dark colored masks that remind passengers that airplanes are flying petri dishes. It’s hard to market safety if flight attendants wear the same plastic face shield that some doctors wear in the ER.

After the flight attendant plastic face shield story went viral, my airline stopped focusing on image and began to focus on safety. The airline sent flight attendants a message stating that face shields could pose a safety hazard, making it more difficult for crew members to respond to an emergency, and banned them. Never mind that foreign carriers issued PPE to crew members to wear in flight. To make sure employees complied, the airline stated that the FAA hadn’t approved them for U.S. carriers, as if the FAA needed to approve them.

The FAA stated that it “does not need to pre-approve the use of PPE by flight attendants if the equipment does not impede the ability to perform safety tasks.”

My airline stood firm on the face shields being a safety issue until Jetblue announced they would allow crew to wear plastic face shields.

When a flight attendant gets in trouble for wearing a face shield-DURING A PANDEMIC- before assisting others, you know there’s a problem. When it’s more important how a flight attendant looks- DURING A PANDEMIC- while they’re telling you to put your mask on first, before assisting others, you know there’s a problem. When a flight attendant isn’t allowed to put on their mask, before assisting others, there’s a big problem.

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