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Airlines instruct flight crews to not let face masks lead to in-flight disruptions

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U.S. airlines have all rolled out new policies requiring travelers to wear masks when they board and fly in an effort to keep passengers and employees as safe as possible from the coronavirus.

But crew members are being told to avoid escalating a situation once in the air if a passenger refuses to keep the mask on. There are exceptions for those who are very young or who have a medical condition.

In a memo sent to American Airlines pilots Monday, the day the mask policy went into effect, the carrier said enforcement of the requirement around face coverings would depend on where a customer is. At the gate, for example, travelers can be prevented from boarding if they are not wearing a mask.

"Once on board and off the gate, the face covering policy will become more lenient," the communication says. "The flight attendant's role is informational, not enforcement, with respect to the face covering policy. The flight attendants are instructed not to escalate the issue if the passenger refuses to wear a face covering and to consider options, such as reseating if other passengers are involved, to defuse the situation."

Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, said the policy undermines the airline's mask requirement.

"'Lenient' and 'mandate' don't go together; they're not a pairing that survive," said Tajer, a captain for the airline.

He said it may not always be possible to move a noncompliant passenger to a seat with space around it, and pointed out that in some cities, someone could be asked to leave a grocery store for not complying with mask rules.

"I can't ask you to leave the airplane when we're in flight," he said.

United Airlines says its mandatory face-covering policy is enforced first at the gate when passengers board, then "flight attendants inform and remind customers of the policy during flight in ways that are similar to our other safety policies."

Passengers who refuse to wear a mask at the gate will be pulled aside by a customer service agent to discuss options, including moving to a new seat where they can stay a safe distance from other passengers. An airline statement said an "isolated situation where a customer may be denied boarding as a last resort" could be possible.

The expectation is for passengers to continue wearing masks during the flight except while eating or drinking.

"If for some reason this policy causes a disturbance onboard, we've counseled our flight attendants to use their de-escalation skills, and they do have the flexibility to reseat customers on the aircraft as needed," the statement says.

In a statement to The Washington Post, JetBlue said that under the new policy, its crew members will be "sensitive to all situations, using their best judgement to maintain compliance while upholding our service standards and will try to de-escalate issues onboard to the best of their ability." The statement also noted that customers who choose not to follow the mask policy will be reviewed for future travel on the airline.

And Southwest Airlines said in a statement that while workers would provide a mask to passengers and "strongly encourage" that they comply with the policy, the carrier was not in a position to deny boarding to someone solely because they refused to wear a mask.

"While our employees are not expected to control the personal behaviors of customers, employees and crews will respectfully request that customers abide by the policy, and we have existing guidelines for managing any issue that escalates," the statement said.

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Reuters first reported on the airline guidance to crews this week.

Unions for pilots and flight attendants have urged authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration and lawmakers to mandate measures including wearing masks to make sure that rules are consistent across the industry - and to give airlines and their employees firmer ground to stand on if travelers don't want to comply.

"We have called for federal guidance from the government so that this is clear and consistent across the industry and we set clear conditions for people who want to fly on airplanes right now," Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines, told CNN. "The fact of the matter is that there is no way to appropriately socially distance on an airplane, and therefore everyone needs to be wearing masks."

She said flight attendants are used to having to de-escalate situations in the air all the time, so the airlines' direction is not unheard of. In a separate statement, Nelson said that airlines were putting new policies into place "on the fly with essentially no coordination or direction from the federal government."

"We need a federal plan of action to implement safety measures on masks, social distancing, cleaning, and more," Nelson said in the statement. "Safety, health and our entire economy is on the line. We need federal requirements that mitigate risk during this pandemic and put the safety of crews and the traveling public first."

The FAA said in a statement that it would keep engaging with partners in talks about protecting the health and safety of passengers and crew. The agency pointed to a recent safety alert that included guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on wearing cloth face coverings.

"Although the FAA's statutory authority is to regulate the safe operation of civil aircraft, we are lending aviation expertise to federal public health agencies and airlines as they issue guidance for crew members, including health monitoring, screening protocols and aircraft cleaning," the statement said.

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