United closes mask policy loophole during meal service

Sep 25, 2020

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Every major U.S. airline now requires that you wear a mask during the end-to-end travel journey.

At first, face-covering policies only applied to flight attendants. Shortly thereafter, carriers expanded the policy to include all flyers and employees. And then, airlines doubled down on the requirements.

The carriers began requiring coverings for the duration of your travel experience — from check-in all the way through baggage claim. Most also removed medical exemptions and added vented (and other mesh) masks to the exclusion list. Finally, most big airlines promised to ban non-compliant passengers from future flights.

Of the hundreds of thousands of passengers United has transported during the pandemic, approximately 250 have been banned for noncompliance, according to a carrier spokesperson. That number is just a very small percentage of passengers travelling on United.

But while the majority of customers are now complying with the updated policies, some are still taking advantage of a loophole.

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Specifically, across airlines, masks may be removed when eating or drinking. Yet some flyers have been enjoying leisurely meals and sipping on drinks for the majority of the flight — some, presumably, to avoid wearing a face covering.

And that’s no longer going to fly with United.

On Tuesday, 23 September, the Chicago-based carrier updated its mask policy in an effort to limit the amount of time people aren’t wearing masks while onboard.

Previously, the airline simply offered an exception to the mask requirement when passengers were eating or drinking. But effective immediately, the newly tightened policy now states that “while you can remove your face covering briefly to eat or drink, you must immediately put it back on afterward”.

A United spokesperson offered the following statement:

The vast majority of our customers are complying with the face covering policy. This is just one more step toward ensuring customer and crew safety by allowing customers who are eating and drinking to remove their face masks — but they need to immediately put it back on when they’re done.

United is no longer mincing words. If you are going to eat or drink while inflight, you are expected to “immediately” put back on your face covering.

The carrier’s updated policy comes as there’s growing concern among travellers on all airlines about those using eating and drinking as an excuse for not wearing a mask.

TPG’s Summer Hull recently detailed her experience of flying in first class and witnessing fellow passengers sip on drinks with their masks down for most of the flight. Over the course of my seven pandemic-era flights, I’ve also noticed a select few flyers prolonging their meals more than seemed necessary. As for my colleague Hull, she believes airlines should be further limiting the onboard food and beverage service to avoid non-compliance.

Lunch in United transcon Polaris during the pandemic (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)


Interestingly, United’s tightening of its mask rule comes as it is actually boosting its inflight catering offering beginning on 1 October. Flyers can expect a more substantial meal offering in first class. Among other improvements, coffee and tea are returning to all flights that feature a beverage service. Fortunately, UA is closing this loophole right as it begins to restore many of its pre-pandemic catering options.

The Big 3 U.S. airlines (and their competitors) now have very similar stances on wearing masks while eating. American’s latest press release states that “face coverings can only be briefly removed while the customer is eating or drinking”. Delta writes that “face coverings are required… except [for a] limited time while eating or drinking”.

Absent a federally-mandated mask requirement, airlines are on their own to create their safety policies. Now, most U.S. airline face-covering policies comply with CDC recommendations, except for an unusual loophole in Allegiant’s policy.

But simply publishing a policy doesn’t mean that enforcement is easy. Much of the onus falls on ground agents and flight attendants who are already busy with a long list of other duties. Plus, crew members didn’t sign up for being the “mask police”.

Still, United appears to be doing all that it can to bolster mask compliance. By tightening the eating and drinking loophole, passengers will hopefully take the message to heart. You can only remove your mask briefly during a meal.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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