WASHINGTON: The wearing of masks to protect against the coronavirus has become such a sensitive issue in the US that airlines are struggling to impose the practice on defiant travelers in the enclosed environment of an airplane.
Johannes Eisele, an AFP photographer, experienced the problem in person.
He recently took his seat on an American Airlines flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York City — then a coronavirus hot spot — to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. He had a middle seat, wedged between two other passengers — only one of whom was wearing a mask.
As Eisele recounted it, “I asked him if he didn’t have a mask. He said, ‘Yes, I have.’ And I asked him, ‘Can you please wear it?’”
“He said he feels more comfortable without the mask and he won’t wear it.”
When Eisele told the man that “I feel more comfortable if you wear it,” his seatmate replied, “Keep your fear to yourself.”
The flight was completely full, so Eisele was unable to change seats.
The scene occurred early this month, shortly before US airlines imposed mask rules — generally exempting only passengers with medical or religious excuses, or very young children — to slow the spread of COVID-19.
At the time of boarding, say officials at American Airlines and United Airlines, the rule is clear: No passenger can board a flight unless he or she has a mask on.
The problem occurs after takeoff. Those airlines generally will, if necessary to avoid confrontation, allow people to remove masks while in flight. They are allowed to do so as well, of course, while eating or drinking.
If a passenger’s refusal to wear a face covering causes a disturbance, a United spokesman told AFP, “we’ve counseled our flight attendants to use their de-escalation skills.”
He added, “They do have the flexibility to re-seat customers on the aircraft,” though that does not work on a sold-out flight.
“Our employees are not expected to control the personal behaviors of customers,” said a Southwest spokesman. The airline does provide masks in airports and onboard planes but will not “deny boarding based solely upon a customer not wearing a mask.”