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Major U.S. airlines will require masks to slow coronavirus spread

A few passengers wait to pick up luggage
A few travelers wait for their luggage to arrive last month at Los Angeles International Airport, where the coronavirus outbreak has brought passenger traffic to a near halt.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Take a flight, wear a mask.

All major U.S. airlines have joined JetBlue in requiring passengers to wear face coverings, and most are also mandating that flight attendants and other employees wear masks while working to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

For the record:
9:00 AM, May. 05, 2020 An earlier version of this story said that United Airlines reported a $1.7 billion drop in revenue in the first quarter of 2020. It should have said the airline reported a $1.7 billion loss in the quarter.

JetBlue, United and Delta will begin the rule May 4. Southwest, Alaska and American are requiring masks starting May 11.

Most of the airlines that have announced the mask rules have cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s findings that the use of cloth masks or face coverings slows the spread of the virus, which causes COVID-19.

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At American Airlines, “requiring a face covering is one more way we can protect those on our aircraft,” said Kurt Stache, senior vice president of customer experience.

The nation’s largest flight attendants’ union, representing more than 50,000 members on 20 airlines, has been pushing carriers to make masks mandatory for passengers and crew members, as well as other employees who deal directly with the public.

“We’re happy to see airlines taking action to require masks or face coverings for passengers, crew and other front-line employees,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants.

For passengers who forget to bring a mask to the airport, United, American, Southwest and Delta said it will make face masks available free.

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Several airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta and Spirit, are also keeping the middle seats in the cabin empty.

Since mid-March, demand for air travel in the U.S. has fallen 96%, leaving domestic flights carrying an average of only 15 to 20 passengers, according to Airlines for America, the trade group for the country’s carriers.

The decline has struck a severe financial blow to the nation’s airlines that were enjoying record or near-record profits only a few months ago.

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American Airlines reported this week losing $2.2 billion in the first three months of the year, with United reporting a $1.7-billion loss and Delta reporting a loss of $534 million in the same period. To continue to operate, most of the major carriers have applied for and received grants and loans from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or have raised capital through loans or other credit mechanisms.

Airlines that accept CARES Act funding are required to continue to provide minimum service to the same destinations as before the crisis, but already several airlines have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for exemptions to that rule.

The airlines taking federal money also agreed not to impose involuntary furloughs or reduce hourly pay. United is reducing the number of hours employees work each week, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg, which said full-time weekly schedules will shrink to 30 hours from 40, starting May 24.

Delta and JetBlue also plan to reduce worker schedules. Workers unions contend that the reduction in hours violates the CARES Act rules.

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There are signs that passenger demand is inching up. The Transportation Security Administration reported that the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports last week was only about 5% or 6% of the same totals a year ago, but the daily totals are increasing — from about 111,000 on Tuesday, up to about 120,000 on Wednesday and nearly 155,000 on Thursday.


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