What the No-fly List Really Means for Travelers Who Refuse to Wear a Mask

If you’re not willing to follow the COVID-19 health policies, some airlines would prefer you didn’t fly with them at all.

Face masks have become standard on all U.S.-based airlines right now, whether you’re taking the 45-minute shuttle from JFK to Logan or are flying across the country. Along with face coverings, the sanitization procedures on airplanes have been entirely revamped, and hand sanitizer is positively abundant. But in the COVID-19 era of air travel, it isn’t just about the policies, but how these policies are being enforced.

With medical experts saying masks are crucial in slowing the spread of COVID-19, airlines are cracking down. Passengers must wear a face covering at airport security, in most terminals, on the jet bridge, while boarding, and for the entire flight. A Delta spokesperson told Travel + Leisure that they actually require “customers and employees to wear a mask or face covering as a consistent layer of protection across all Delta touchpoints.”

If at any point in the flight process passengers are not wearing masks (or the right type of mask), most airlines will offer one. “For customers who don’t have face masks, United is providing face masks for them,” Maddie King, a Chicago-based spokesperson for United Airlines, told T+L in a phone interview.

Most notably, a few major U.S.-based carriers — namely, Delta and United — have said that unmasked passengers will not only be refused boarding, but may even be placed on the airline’s no-fly list.

What does the no-fly list mean?

That depends on the airline and the circumstances under which the passenger refused to put on their mask. King says that if a customer is not wearing a face covering, their staff is trained to first offer a friendly reminder, as well as a mask.

She explains that their staff’s reminders are usually well-received, and customers are gracious and accommodating, putting their mask back on immediately or taking the one offered to them. However, should a passenger continually refuse to put on a mask, they will not be allowed on the United Airlines aircraft.

As for unmasking while on the plane, in late July, Delta turned an aircraft around to remove two passengers who refused to wear masks. The plane, heading to Atlanta, returned to Detroit to “expel two passengers who had been unwilling to follow a new but quintessential coronavirus rule,” NPR reported.

Delta airplanes sit on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) on January 31, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to King, after any instance in which a passenger continually refuses to wear a mask in a United terminal or on an aircraft, there’s an internal discussion and investigation. “That [conversation] would determine if and how long the customer is banned,” she says.

In terms of Delta and United’s policies, the escalation from no mask to the no-fly list is not immediate. Each instance of a passenger refusing to wear a mask — which, again, is few and far between — is considered on a case-by-case basis.

When was this policy put in place, and how long will it last?

Face coverings for staff and passengers have been required by major U.S. airlines since May. The idea of a no-fly list took hold in mid-July, when both Delta and United confirmed that passengers who refuse to wear a face mask may not be welcome on their airline in the future. In an interview with Today, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said, “You cannot board a Delta plane unless you have a mask on. 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.”

When we spoke with King, she said of United’s policy: “Anyone above the age of two is required to wear a face covering in our terminals and on our aircrafts. Otherwise, they could potentially be banned from flying United while this face mask policy is in place.”

King can’t speculate exactly how long a passenger's stint on the no-fly list will last — ultimately, each case is evaluated individually. But she says the passengers on United’s no-fly list are likely to be banned from the airline for at least the duration of their mask policy.

How many people are on these lists so far?

The reaction to the stringent mask policies across major U.S. airlines has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s more apparent than ever that airlines are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and that the safety of their crew and passengers is paramount. In fact, these strict measures are showing increased rates of satisfaction in customers who are starting to fly within the 48 contiguous states.

“We send out customer satisfaction surveys to our [passengers] onboard, and those scores have gone up dramatically since we’ve started laying out all our cleaning procedures and mask policies,” says King.

As for how many passengers are winding up on the no-fly list, King says United’s latest count is around 100, while Delta confirms they have more than 100 people on their list. But compared to the number of passengers put at ease because of the increased precautions, the number of people who have unequivocally opposed the mask policy is miniscule.

The headline here isn’t the number of people on the no-fly list, though — it’s the airlines constantly adjusting their policies to comply not only with health regulations, but with the expectations of their passengers and staff. CDC advisories are helping shape airline procedures, but so too is the direct feedback from customers demanding stringent safety measures as they return to the skies.

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