U.S. airlines are clamping down on medical exemptions to avoid masks on flights.
Yulia Naumenko | Moment | Getty Images
CNBC Travel

Don't want to wear a mask on your next flight? That just got a lot harder

Passengers who refuse to wear masks based on medical exemptions will no longer be able to fly on American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

On Wednesday, both air carriers announced anyone over the age of two must wear a mask while flying. Masks can only be removed to eat or drink, and Southwest's new policy states these instances should be "very brief." 

"Customers and team members have been clear that they feel more safe when everyone is wearing a face covering," said Alison Taylor, chief customer officer of American Airlines, in an announcement posted on the company's website.

Both new policies apply to the entire travel experience. American indicates customers must wear face coverings "from the time they enter their departure airport and not remove it until they exit their arrival airport."

American's new policy starts on July 29. After this date, if a medical condition prevents mask usage, customers will need to find alternative travel arrangements.

U.S. airlines have been criticized for loose enforcement of mask policies during the pandemic.
Jose Luis Pelaez

These changes come on the heels of new face-covering announcements by other U.S. airlines earlier this week.

On Monday, Delta Air Lines stated passengers who want to avoid wearing masks due to a medical condition must complete a "Clearance-To-Fly" virtual consultation with a medical professional before flying. The process for the "rare exemption" could take up to an hour and is required for each trip.

Two days later, United Airlines announced that face coverings are not only required on flights but throughout the 360 airports where the airline operates around the world.

The evolution of mask policies on U.S. airlines

The U.S. airline industry was slow to adopt mandatory mask requirements for passengers at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in that country. Thereafter, the industry suffered withering criticism for loose enforcement of its own policies.

In response, some airlines began banning non-compliant passengers from future travel, which didn't help fellow passengers who had to endure barefaced seatmates for hours in the air — and from documenting their discontent online.

When airlines started clamping down on face-covering requirements, passengers simply threw out the veritable mask trump-card — claiming a medical condition. Due to privacy regulations like HIPAA, flyers only needed to say that a medical problem (without any proof) precluded them from having to cover their faces. 

I am very skeptical about any truly valid medical exemptions. From the news media, it's clear people have abused this loophole.
Connie Hsia
Frequent traveler

So which medical conditions make wearing a mask difficult or dangerous? Doctors say this is largely an illegitimate excuse. Even people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are advised to wear masks in public.

As nearly two-thirds of U.S. states and an ever-growing list of retailers such as Walmart, Starbucks and Costco now require face coverings, airlines are instituting the strictest mask measures to date, which some travelers say is a little too late.

"Requiring masks is a no-brainer," said American frequent traveler Connie Hsia. "I am very skeptical about any truly valid medical exemptions. From the news media, it's clear people have abused this loophole."

And what of those who still refuse to comply?

Per American's policy, those who fail to wear masks "at any time during their journey with American may be barred from future travel for the duration of this face covering requirement."

On July 22, Ed Bastian, Delta's CEO, told NBC's "Today" show that Delta had barred over 100 passengers from traveling on the airline over mask-related issues.