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Travel 'I walked off the plane': Travelers irked by inconsistent face mask use during coronavirus pandemic

17:27  30 june  2020
17:27  30 june  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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Vernon Petri's trip to Florida ended before it began. The Indianapolis attorney said he walked off his June 11 Allegiant flight before it departed because some passengers and crew were not wearing face masks and the passengers were not separated by empty seats, reports the Indianapolis Star, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

a group of people walking on a sidewalk: Travelers, some with masks, some without, head away from their arriving gates at the Indianapolis International Airport, Indianapolis, Wednesday, June 25, 2020. Mask use varies on different airlines, and some, like Allegiant, have a more lax policy than others. © Robert Scheer/IndyStar Travelers, some with masks, some without, head away from their arriving gates at the Indianapolis International Airport, Indianapolis, Wednesday, June 25, 2020. Mask use varies on different airlines, and some, like Allegiant, have a more lax policy than others.

People were sitting shoulder to shoulder, he said. The pilots and three out of four flight attendants did not have a mask on. Whole families boarded without masks.

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Petri said he voiced his concerns to a flight attendant, but Allegiant at the time didn't require passengers to wear masks. 

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“Well, I picked up my baggage and I walked off the plane and went home," Petri said. "I missed the whole vacation time.” 

His experience reflects how though many airlines require masks, not all do. And even among those that do, enforcement and compliance isn't always certain. 

"Everybody has to wear it in order for this to be effective," said Thomas Duszynski, the director of epidemiology education at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Wearing a mask, he said, can keep you from spreading the disease to other people. "And when you get on an airplane, you're in one of those confined, closed spaces for long periods of time."

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Airlines that require face coverings

Airline trade association Airlines for America says its members, including Indianapolis carriers Southwest, Delta, United, American and Alaska Airlines, require passengers and customer-facing employees to wear face coverings, according to a press release. 

“The face covering requirement is just one of many steps U.S. airlines are taking to help protect the wellbeing of all travelers,” Airlines for America communications director Katherine Estep said in a statement. “U.S. airlines have implemented intensive cleaning protocols, in some cases to include electrostatic cleaning and fogging procedures."

Southwest, American and other airlines do not allow passengers to enter a plane without a face covering, according to company press releases. Passengers also are reminded during the flight to wear a covering. 

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However, American spokesman Ross Feinstein said passengers don’t have to wear face coverings if they are young children, if they are eating or drinking, or if they have a medical reason for not wearing it.

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Traveler Justin Evans said he wore a mask on his American Airlines flight to Indianapolis and while walking in Indianapolis International Airport. He said he wore the covering because it is obligatory and because of the people he will visit on his trip.

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“I want to make sure that I protect them and also protect myself,” Evans said.

He added that he felt safe on the plane. The aircraft was clean, and people seemed to be following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations, he said.

Louis Bubala, a Reno, Nevada, attorney who flew out of Indianapolis on Thursday, said he had a less-encouraging experience. He said that while most passengers were wearing masks onto the plane, he saw about four people who he does not think wore masks on the flight except when they walked to the restroom. He also noticed that some people were not wearing a mask over their nose or wearing it in other improper ways. 

“I’ll say most people were in compliance, but you had more than a handful that decided they weren’t going to comply with it,” he said, “and you didn’t have Southwest doing very much to enforce it.”

He said one flight attendant’s mask was below her nose, and she took it off to talk to people. He said he also saw another flight attendant walk through the aisle without a mask on.

A Southwest spokeswoman reached by IndyStar did not comment specifically on Bubala's experience but said that the company requires employees and customers to wear masks or face coverings. Michelle Agnew said the airline has masks available in the airport and on the plane. Southwest informs customers of the policy before their travel date and also will deny boarding to customers who decide to not wear a face covering, she said. 

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"Of course, we understand there may be times when a Customer needs to temporarily remove their face covering; for instance, to eat, drink, or take medicine," she wrote in an email to IndyStar. "However, we expect Customers to put their face masks or coverings back on as soon as possible."

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Airlines stepping up on enforcement

American and Delta press releases say that the airlines may deny future travel for customers who decline to wear a facial covering.

“Restricting travel is a step we take very seriously, and it will only occur after a comprehensive review of the facts of an incident,” said Feinstein of American Airlines. “If we restrict travel, it would last for the duration of our policy for required face coverings.”

Allegiant said on Friday that it will begin requiring passengers to wear masks on July 2.

“We have found that the vast majority of customers wear masks as a standard practice, but this update adds a layer of assurance and addresses customer needs as communities re-open," said Scott Sheldon, Allegiant's executive vice president and chief operating officer, in a press release. "We had hoped to see a federal mandate to require face masks, so that all airlines could be uniform in their approach, to avoid customer confusion, and to aid enforcement. In the absence of that, we are taking this next needed step in our own policy.”

Hilarie Grey, Allegiant’s managing director of corporate communications, said the airline has been strongly encouraging passengers to wear face coverings and provides them with a health and safety kit that includes a mask and other items. She also said that Allegiant employees are required to wear masks when interacting with customers, but some personnel are exempt of the requirement because of medical reasons. 

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Grey said customers complete a health acknowledgement questionnaire when they check in to their flight. She added that Allegiant tries to keep as much distance as possible between passengers and boards its flights starting with rows in the back of the plane and continuing forward.

“Passenger seating is spaced out as practicable, but on fuller flights, that’s not always possible,” she said.

Grey noted that passengers can opt in to hear ahead of time whether their flight will be over 65% capacity. If they don’t want to fly, they can pick another flight or ask for a credit voucher.

Petri said he opted in to hear about the plane's capacity, but Allegiant did not notify him about it. Last week the airline issued him a refund.  

Contact IndyStar Pulliam Fellow Anne Snabes at asnabes@indystar.com and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes. 

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