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Airlines’ uneven COVID-19 policies frustrate travelers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Months after the pandemic began, concerns about transmission of COVID-19 remain understandably high.

After all, inconsistencies between federal guidelines and individual airlines’ policies have been the source of frustration and confusion for would-be travelers since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

You don’t have to go far to find examples of this inconsistency. Take Jacksonville International Airport, for example – face coverings are required inside the airport but not by every airline with service there.

PETITION: Consumer advocates call for federal government to issue uniform travel rules

Jacksonville’s not alone. Travelers across the country have been caught off-guard by airline policies.

That was the case for Danny Bush, who boarded an American Airlines flight in June in hopes that she’d fly in a safe and healthy environment.

What she found, however, were crowded boarding areas, passengers without face masks and a jam-packed flight with even middle seats filled. In other words, no sign of social distancing.

“They put out the dialogue as if they were being very safe and considerate for COVID, but when you arrived at the airport, none of those things were happening,” Bush recalled.

It was particularly concerning for Bush, whose 20-year-old son has a suppressed immune system. Due to her son’s condition, social distancing is something she takes very seriously.

“I had anxiety the entire flight,” she said.

Since then, American Airlines said it has imposed stricter requirements for face coverings. That includes barring anyone over the age of 2 from flying without some sort of mask.

While some airlines require travelers to wear masks and are spacing people out by keeping middle seats clear, Consumer Reports has found that the COVID-19 safety precautions in place vary from airline to airline.

“In many cases the policies conflict,” Consumer Reports Aviation Expert Bill McGee said. “If you’re flying on two different airlines on the same day, you may very well have two different sets of rules.”

Without federal rules in place, Consumer Reports warns, airlines won’t be held accountable if they’re not taking steps to make sure their flights are as safe as possible.

“The Department of Transportation has not stepped up and has not protected consumers as we believe they should,” McGee said.

Consumer Reports and others are calling on the Department of Transportation to set mandatory, enforceable health and safety rules that would apply uniformly to all U.S. airline flights. View the petition here.

For the time being, there are some things you can do to keep yourself safe while flying:

  • Ask the airline if it guarantees empty middle seats and how strictly it enforces its mask policies;
  • Pack a go-bag with extra masks, hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes;
  • As soon as you board the flight, clean your surroundings including the air nozzle;
  • Consumer Reports recommends blasting air directly into your face during the entire flight;
  • Get a window seat if possible, so you’ll minimize close contact with others.

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