You can probably guess what would happen if you refuse to wear a face mask on your next flight. But Arden Dmitrenko seems to have been surprised by United Airlines’ reaction to his mask rebellion during his recent trip. (Reprint)
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Elliott Advocacy team has received requests for guidance from both sides of this debate. Some travelers are alarmed by the partially masked or completely maskless passengers they see on their flights. These travelers feel their safety has been put at risk. Others believe the mask enforcements are encumbering their civil rights and oxygen levels.
To be clear — if your upcoming plans include a flight, those plans also had better include wearing your favorite mask. If not, you won’t be going anywhere but back to your house — guaranteed. This is why.
Trouble on this United Airlines flight during the coronavirus
Dmitrenko and his family were flying from Los Angeles to Houston on United Airlines last week. Because the group could not preselect their seats, the problems started at the check-in counter. They were traveling with their young son and wanted the airline to seat them together in one row.
“Our 3-year old boy cannot sit separate from his mother or from me,” Dmitrenko explained. “He starts panicking. The flight attendant told me to wait until all passengers were seated. Then we could ask if others were willing to switch spots with us.”
Once onboard, Dmitrenko says he waited patiently. Then he started asking passengers to switch seats with him so his family could sit together.
The other passenger seated next to my family agreed to switch spots. But the United Airlines flight attendant, **** (possibly her name), didn’t allow the move. She kept refusing to let us switch seats even though both of us were okay with it.
However, before takeoff, the family was permitted to make the switch and before long, the aircraft was on its way to Houston.
Then the troubles really began.
“My son doesn’t want to wear a mask on the flight.”
Soon into the relatively short three-hour journey, the same flight attendant noticed that Dmitrenko’s son had removed his mask. She approached the family and reiterated the same information that United Airlines repeatedly announced upon boarding the aircraft.
United Airlines requires all passengers over age 2 to wear a mask at all times during the flight. You may lower your masks temporarily to eat or drink, but they must remain on at all other times.
Dmitrenko says that he told the flight attendant that his son wasn’t going to wear a mask. In fact, he wasn’t capable of wearing a mask.
We calmly explained to [the flight attendant] that my son could not wear a mask. I told her that his medical conditions prevent him from doing so. Then I explained that he gets panic attacks and cries when something is covering his face.
I DID NOT need to explain the circumstances as to why he could not wear a mask and [why I] was taking [his mask] off. I told her that I’m not going to give my child a mask and make him suffer. Out of courtesy I explained all this to her. LEGALLY, I do not need to explain, nor should the flight attendant have asked why my son cannot wear a mask.
Not the end of the story
After Dmitrenko told the flight attendant that he refused to make his child wear a mask, she walked away. But when she returned, she had a face covering for the boy.
“She wasn’t wearing gloves and the mask wasn’t in a package,” he recalled. “This is not called ‘practicing safety.’ For all I know, [the flight attendant] could have passed something to my child from the exposed mask!”
Confident that he was within his rights to refuse to force his child to wear any mask on the flight, Dmitrenko thought that was the end of the story. He settled back into his seat and tried to enjoy the rest of the trip.
But he would soon find out that it definitely wasn’t the end of the story.
Fact: Don’t plan a flight during the pandemic if you won’t cover your nose and mouth
When the flight landed in Texas, things went from bad to worse for the family. And the repercussion of Dmitrenko’s misunderstanding of the mask rules onboard United Airlines flights was made clear.
As he left the aircraft, Dmitrenko was surprised when he learned that security wanted to speak to him.
The flight attendant was shouting at me from one end of the plane that security officers were waiting for me. She waved her arms, yelling, ‘here he is!’ and ‘This is him!’ As if I were a criminal or a murderer on an airplane. THAT WAS SO HUMILIATING!
Dmitrenko said that he then had a calm conversation with the security officers.
“They explained the mask rules on flights during the pandemic again and that a child over age two must wear one,” Dmitrenko remembered. “I did appreciate that they were able to talk to me respectfully. I wasn’t given this [mask requirement] information before boarding at LAX.”
But despite the airport security officers’ low-key nature, a simple lesson of mask etiquette wasn’t their primary intent. Dmitrenko soon learned that his refusal to make his son wear a mask on the flight was a significant transgression.
The interview concluded with the agents making a copy of Dmitrenko’s identification. Afterward, they informed the family that United Airlines had canceled their return flight. They were not welcome on board United Airlines again.
Dmitrenko couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I was totally humiliated,” Dmitrenko recalled.
Fact: You can’t refuse to wear a mask on your flight during the coronavirus crisis
When Dmitrenko’s request for help landed on my desk, I was more than a little confused. I had just flown cross-country on United Airlines the same week. So I knew that to check in, you must click a button that you agree to wear a mask throughout the flight. If you do not, you can’t check-in.
That information is also displayed on your digital boarding pass.
Additionally, the repetitive reminders begin the day before your flight and continue throughout the airport and onboard the aircraft. In fact, it would be impossible for a traveler to not be aware of the current mask requirements.
During the pandemic, you’ll find the mask requirement mantra repeated at every step of your air travel journey. You can’t escape this information that you’ll see:
- At the time of ticket purchase
- 24 hours before your flight in an email
- At the check-in counter
- On billboards and flashing signs in the airport
- Repetitive loudspeaker announcements
- On the floor in areas where passengers might tend to congregate (baggage claim, check in)
- Announcements on the plane — over and over — by the pilot and flight attendants
No, you will not get a $10,000 award for refusing to comply with the airline’s rules
I read through Dmitrenko’s request for help several times to make sure I understood his tale. Yes, he really wanted the Elliott Advocacy team to broker a $10,000 settlement over this self-created incident.
Of course, the simple answer to this request is “No.” The Elliott Advocacy team won’t mediate on your behalf if you refuse to comply with the CDC’s recommendations and the airlines’ requirements meant to quell a global pandemic.
We’re all in this together. The quicker we can end this coronavirus, the faster we can all get back to some semblance of normal.
An airline doesn’t owe you a cash award because you (or your child) can’t wear a mask on a flight during a pandemic. Of course, no one wants to torment a child with a mask, but the coverings protect the other passengers. You’re showing respect and concern for travelers and the flight attendants around you by wearing a mask on board your flight (and requiring your child to wear a mask). This is proper etiquette, whether you believe a mask is necessary or not.
No one is forcing a face covering on anyone. But if you want to fly anywhere during the pandemic, you must wear a mask. It’s that simple.
Fact: If you refuse to wear a mask on a flight you could be hit with a heavy fine. As of Sept. 2021, the TSA has increased the fines for passengers who violate the federal mandate to wear a mask on all public transportation systems in the United States. A first-time offender can incur a $500 to $1,000 fine. Subsequent offenses can lead to fines from $1,000 to $3,000.
The airlines are willing to ban passengers — permanently
It won’t surprise regular readers of our site that the airlines don’t often tolerate passenger shenanigans. We know all carriers will not hesitate to ban troublesome travelers.
And recently, all of the major airlines have shown a particular willingness to ban maskless passengers.
Warning: Airlines often share information about troublesome passengers. So if one airline blacklists you, multiple airlines might do the same.
The lesson? Don’t push this mask issue, or you may find out that you can’t fly anywhere even after the pandemic passes.
The bottom line: Wear a mask or don’t bother going to the airport
In the end, I explained to Dmitrenko that there was no way that our team would mediate his case. We are all eager to return to “normal” as soon as possible. If we all follow the CDC’s guidelines for containing the coronavirus, we have the best possible chance of doing it. Ignoring mask rules on flights goes against that mission.
I explained to Dmitrenko why we would not take his case:
Because of the global pandemic, virtually every airline across the world currently requires all passengers over age 2 to wear masks in the airport and throughout the flight. The airlines are asking passengers who are unable to wear masks to forgo air travel at this time in the interest of public safety. Each week, the airlines are banning more and more travelers from future travel for refusing to wear masks and/or for challenging this requirement. I’m sorry you were unaware of this situation, but I would recommend that if your son is not able to tolerate a mask that you limit your travel until the pandemic is over — for his safety and for the safety of others.
And with that, we must close Dmitrenko’s $10,000 claim.
If you don’t want to wear a face-covering in public places, then you may want to consider staying home during the pandemic. But you certainly should not book a flight anywhere if you’re against masks — or if you’re traveling with a child who can’t (or won’t wear one). Every major airline requires passengers to wear masks onboard at this time. Babies (under age two) are the only people exempt. If you don’t think you can wear a mask throughout your flight, you should defer travel until you can.
Wear a mask and other things that will protect you on your next flight.
- Wear your most comfortable mask
Not all face coverings are created the same. Before you find your favorite and most comfortable mask, you’ll likely need to buy and try a few (no, you can’t return the rejects!). You’ll wear Some masks behind your ears, and others will go around your head. Whichever you choose, make sure yours fits comfortably and covers your nose and mouth entirely without restricting your breathing or line of sight.
- A coronavirus cleaning kit: Clorox wipes and antibacterial gel and soap
The airlines and airports are doing their best to keep everything sanitized, but for extra protection, make your own portable cleaning kit. Travel versions of Clorox wipes and antibacterial gel are readily available online and at most retailers at this time. You can use your cleaning kit onboard the plane as well as at the hotel at your destination.
- Wash your hands often
Washing your hands frequently is one of the simplest things you can do to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Here is the Center for Disease Control’s guide to washing your hands effectively.
- If possible, don’t eat or drink on the flight
It’s best to keep your mask on your face at all times. But if you must eat or drink on the plane, the rule is that you may only lower your mask to put a piece of food in your mouth or to take a drink. You then must put your cover back over your nose and mouth.
- Check the CDC’s current recommendations
Always check the CDC’s website for current coronavirus guidance before you make your travel plans or leave for your journey.
- Don’t travel if you have a compromised immune system
The airlines have made it very easy for passengers to change their plans during the pandemic. In fact, most airlines have adopted very flexible cancellation rules during the global crisis. All major airlines, including United Airlines, have eliminated their change fees on domestic flights. This includes all classes of service (note: Many airlines exclude Basic Economy in this policy in 2021 ). So if you have a compromised immune system, you should not feel forced to take your flight. Bank your credit and use it when it’s safe for you to travel. (If you acquired vouchers on UA during the pandemic see: How to make the most of your United Airlines flight credit)
- Defer travel if you’re under the weather
If you’re feeling unwell, you should also not take your flight. Otherwise, you’re putting yourself at risk — and others around you. Don’t forget, you can change your flight penalty-free throughout 2020.
- Ask (politely) for a refund
If you are unable to wear a mask for the duration of your flight, ask the airline for a refund. Virtually every airline has eliminated medical exemptions to the face-covering requirements on flights in the United States for the time being. (See: Can you fly without a mask if you have a doctor’s note?) (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
Remember, wearing a mask protects the people around you and is a show of common courtesy — especially to the flight crew who spend all day onboard these aircrafts to take you where you want to go. Please, just be polite and wear a mask. 🙂
*Update: The TSA has extended the mask requirements at US airports and on domestic flights through Jan. 18, 2022.