There’s a big difference between an intentional mask rebellion and punishing innocent, well-intentioned travelers. Mask vigilantism is out of control on flights and in my experience, it was the flight attendants that were to blame.
How Many Masks Are Enough?
A family (I assume) of four teenage girls boarded United 422 from Fort Myers, Florida to Newark this week with identical masks. It wasn’t a cute design or innovative approach that drew my attention, it was conspicuous (and seemingly endless) layering. A clear face guard with visor dropped from the forehead, each with a pair of masks (one paper and one cloth mask) underneath. While not all health concerns are visible, they appeared to be healthy.
While walking through the aisle to their seats, one reaches out to touch a headrest, the same one others had touched on the way back to their seats.
Initially, Dr. Fauci stated that masks weren’t necessary at all. Then he advised that one should be worn in crowds or when a distance of six feet couldn’t be achieved. He demonstrated it in action by standing alone on the pitcher’s mound throwing the first pitch masked, then appearing maskless side-by-side with two others in the stands moments later. Now it could be two masks, maybe three – even as cases continue to fall.
What stops us from seven or eight masks? Is it ridiculous? Yes, absolutely, but so are three masks.
Even The Compliant Aren’t Safe
One flight attendant on my aircraft identified that a man’s mask had slipped below his nose. To be clear, this wasn’t an anti-mask person making a statement, rather just a businessman in his mid-20s. He was quietly sitting there working on his laptop, he boarded as a united Premier 1K (he flies a lot) and had a compliant paper ear loop mask face covering. He hadn’t spoken to anyone that I noticed since boarding the plane and had not looked up from his laptop.
As a flight attendant walked by (no name tags so I can’t grace her on these hollowed pages, conveniently) she saw that his mask had slipped below his nose slightly. She asked him to replace his mask over his nose and mouth, he apologized, did so, and went back to his spreadsheet, the flight attendant moved on.
During a separate pass, the same flight attendant walked by with several others, pointed to the young man deeply involved in his work, and said, “that’s the one” before moving to the back of the cabin.
A flight attendant working the forward cabin but who was not the purser addressed the man with a warning. She reviewed the mask requirements with him, stated that he needed to wear a face mask at all times even between bites and sips (he wasn’t eating, we hadn’t even pushed back yet.)
This was not a guy taking a stand. He wasn’t even outright out of compliance with the mask mandate, it had simply had fallen ever so slightly but not even completely below his nose. Not all masks are created equal and I too wear masks that drop from time to time – I am sure that even those cabin crew members had one that dropped from time-to-time.
A Flight Attendant’s Excuse to Be Authoritarian
This was an opportunity for the flight attendants to be authoritarian. The passenger was docile, apologetic, and it was clear he wasn’t flouting the regulations set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor the federal mask mandate. Threatening to remove him from the aircraft when he wasn’t argumentative, immediately corrected the error, and was genuinely sorry about it, is ridiculous.
We have seen other instances where crew members react to what they deem to be safety measures but are really an opportunity for them to dictatorial.
There were three announcements lecturing, and I mean lecturing, about mask-compliance. As I type this, there is another one. This is not a United issue. This is a flight crew-specific issue. Threats were again made to have police officers meet the aircraft for those non-compliant. I walked to the bathroom and looked in every seat and every row on my way back from row 20 (more than half the aircraft in coach) and I didn’t see a single person that failed to be compliant with the policy.
In fact, as I mentioned above, some were wearing more than one N95 mask. While United doesn’t provide in-seat social distancing as Delta does by keeping middle seats open, they do require passengers to wear masks (as does the federal government.) This is all despite United intensely cleaning the aircraft between flights, distributing hand sanitizer wipes to every passenger as they board, and utilizing Hepa filters that United and the DoD have proven make it virtually impossible to transmit the virus on board a plane.
When we highlight people being removed from airplanes due to failure to comply with a mask policy, Matthew and I both shake our heads. Passengers fighting a policy that they’ve already accepted by purchasing the ticket (and agreeing half a dozen times during the check-in process) are ridiculous and attention-seeking. If you don’t want to wear the mask, drive.
But this sheds new light. If someone’s mask innocently falls below their nose and an FA walks by, is there no difference between brazen defiance of the rules and an inadvertent mask slip?
If a passenger boards a flight and then tries to make some sort of a stand on masks that causes them or the airline to violate a federal order/mandate/rule – threatening to have the appropriate consequences awaiting their arrival is fine by me. However, if a person is quietly working with their mask on, flight attendants should recognize the difference between an error for which they may not have even been aware versus a direct and intentional contradiction to their orders.
When a highly experienced and frequent flyer forgets to re-secure their seatbelt after returning from the bathroom, this isn’t sufficient justification to arrest the passengers nor divert the flight. The same is true for innocent failures to keep a mask secured. Some flight attendants – definitely not all – are utilizing this moment to flex their authority. It’s petty and sad, and out of control.
What do you think? Have you seen something similar? Do you think flight attendants should treat accidental violations the same as intentional ones?