Trump administration calls for masks throughout air travel, other guidelines for Covid-19 era

Key Points
  • The guidelines include notifying passengers about mask requirements and collecting passenger contact information.
  • Airlines are grappling with how to keep travelers and crews safe in the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The federal guidelines also recommended masks be worn by all onboard but stopped short of requiring social distancing on flights.
A man seats in front of a closed newstand at LAX Airport at the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend during the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic in Los Angeles, California on May 22, 2020.
Apu Gomes | AFP | Getty Images

The Trump administration on Thursday said air travelers should wear face coverings like masks and announced a series of other guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 in air travel.

Major U.S. airlines require air travelers to wear masks onboard flights and have recently warned travelers that they will refuse service to customers who don't comply, with a few exceptions like medical issues.

"Airlines and airports are strongly encouraged to require that everyone correctly wear a mask or cloth face covering in shared spaces," with a few exceptions such as medical issues or when eating or drinking, federal officials said in their guidelines. "Wearing a mask or cloth face covering is particularly necessary any time social distancing cannot be maintained."

They also called for airlines to collect passenger health declarations as well as contact information to aid government disease-tracing efforts.

The recommendations were jointly issued by the Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The guidelines called for physical distancing at airports. While they stopped short of mandating distancing during flights, the officials said airlines and airports should advise travelers "when it may not be possible to meet social distancing expectations" and stress the importance of wearing a mask and keeping hands clean.

Labor unions had called on the federal government to mandate masks on board.

Flight attendant union leader on push for federal mask rule while flying
Flight attendant union leader on push for federal mask rule while flying

"It is imperative that airlines and airports inform passengers when it may not be possible to meet social distancing expectations and, as a result, emphasize the additional importance of observing all the other preventive measures, including strict hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and wearing a face mask or cloth face covering," the officials said.

U.S. airlines' policies on leaving some seats unsold to space passengers out on flights have diverged in recent weeks.

American Airlines this month lifted caps on the number of seats it sells on each flight, after setting a number of new polices such as requiring masks on board and intensifying cleaning procedures. United Airlines hasn't put a capacity limit on its flights but like American, informs travelers when their flights are filling up. 

"When it comes to blocking middle seats, that's a PR strategy, that's not a safety strategy," Josh Earnest, United's chief communications officer, said Wednesday.

Delta, Southwest and JetBlue have been limiting the number of spaces they leave open on their flights.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian on Thursday said in a note to employees that "limiting capacity makes a real difference in keeping travelers and our people safe on board – and our customers tell us it gives them peace of mind when they fly."

The policy, which limits capacity in the economy cabin to 60%, runs through September "and I expect we will continue to block middle seats beyond that date," Bastian said.

Hawaiian Holdings CEO on resuming flights and the U.S. Treasury loan extension
Hawaiian Holdings CEO on resuming flights and the U.S. Treasury loan extension