The face covering requirements on two major U.S. airlines just got stricter, with Southwest and American Airlines announcing this week they will end exemptions and step up enforcement.
"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one of the best ways we can slow the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a face covering," said Alison Taylor, the chief customer officer of American Airlines. "Customers and team members have been clear that they feel more safe when everyone is wearing a face covering."
Effective July 29, American Airlines will require all customers over the age of 2 to wear face coverings on board and at airports, citing the risk of asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission.
The company said in a press release that individuals must keep their masks on from the time they enter their departure airport to the time they exit their arrival airport, except for while eating or drinking.
"Those unwilling to comply with this face covering requirement at any time during their journey with American may be barred from future travel for the duration of this face covering requirement," it added.
Southwest Airlines is implementing a similar policy on July 27, requiring all customers over the age of 2 to mask up at every stage of the travel process from check-in to baggage claim, except for "very brief" instances when eating and drinking.
The company is encouraging customers to bring their own face coverings, but said it will have masks available at airports upon request.
"If a Customer is unable to wear a face covering for any reason (even a verifiable medical condition), we regret that we are unable to transport the Customer at this time," Southwest wrote on its website.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear face coverings in public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. It acknowledges some exceptions, such as for children under the age of 2 and anyone who "has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance."
According to the CDC, face coverings may not be feasible for everyone and may even exacerbate certain physical or mental health conditions. For instance, masks may present a challenge for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or people who are hard of hearing and rely on lipreading to communicate.
Still, privacy regulations mean that passengers could theoretically claim that a medical condition prevented them from masking up, without having to provide proof.
Southwest President Tom Nealon said on a call with reporters and industry analysts on Thursday that there have been issues with face covering compliance in the past.
"The reason we're doing this is we're simply seeing too many exceptions to the policy and it has put our flight crews in a really tough spot," he said. "It also made our customers pretty uncomfortable, so this is something that goes into effect next week."
Delta Airlines also announced recent changes to its face covering requirement, specifically regarding the process of granting medical exceptions.
As of July 20, customers who report having underlying conditions that prevent them from wearing masks must complete a thorough Clearance-To-Fly process for each trip. The process involves a virtual consultation with a third-party medical professional, facilitated by a Delta agent, and can take up to an hour.
In a press release, Delta encouraged customers who cannot wear masks due to a health condition to reconsider travel altogether.
CEO Ed Bastian repeated this message in a Today Show appearance on Wednesday, and spoke of how the airline has "steadily and rather aggressively" increased enforcement of its mask requirement.
"You cannot board a Delta plane unless you have a mask on," Bastian said. "If you board the plane and you insist on not wearing your mask, we will insist that you don't fly Delta, into the future. We already have over 100 people we put on that list."
Most major airlines in the U.S. began requiring passengers to wear face coverings while flying in April, and ramped up enforcement in mid-June amid growing calls from flight attendant unions, consumer groups and congressional Democrats for a federal requirement.
Federal COVID-19 guidelines encourage people to wear masks while flying and urge airlines to leave some seats empty for safety reasons, but the Trump administration has not made these actions mandatory.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said on Thursday that he does not want such a requirement.
"I don't agree with mandating masks for airline travel and singling it out," he said. "I think if we're going to mandate masks, let's mandate masks everywhere."