For close to a year, airlines have required flyers to wear face masks onboard planes and throughout many spaces in airports. Starting today, Tuesday, Feb. 2, that's no longer just an airline policy – it's a federal law.
New President Joe Biden's executive order mandating masks on planes, in airports, and on other modes of public transit took effect at midnight. Airline industry groups and flight attendant unions had begged former President Donald Trump's administration for months to require masks and give them the backing of the federal government to no avail.
On paper, it may not seem like a massive change. Masks have been commonplace in the sky for nearly a year, and airlines have continually ratcheted up their masking requirements and banned passengers who refused to comply. Delta alone has banned nearly 1,000 flyers since the start of the pandemic.
But in practice, the fine print of the mask requirements has some major changes for what kind of mask you need to fly and who needs to wear one.
Masks Mandatory for All 2 and Older
Hoping your fussy child won't have to wear a mask? No such luck.
The order explicitly requires all children 2 and older to wear a mask. That's in line with how many major airlines have approached it, including United and American. United drew headlines before Christmas after kicking a family off a flight when their 2-year-old daughter wouldn't wear a mask.
But it's a change for Delta, which had a more lenient approach with children. Its mask policy had stated: “Children under the age two and young children who cannot maintain a face covering are exempt from the mask requirement.”
For the rest of us, expect to wear a mask at nearly all times. The only exceptions carved out in the order are when going through airport security to prove your identity, and while eating, drinking, or taking medication – and only “briefly.”
Homemade & Cloth Masks Are In
The new order spells out exactly what types of masks will pass muster on planes and in airports. And it's up to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to enforce it.
Both homemade and purchased masks are acceptable, according to the order. Cloth masks should be at least two layers. And of course, heavier duty masks like N95s or KN95s are OK, too – as are surgical masks. All masks should be secured with ear loops, ties, or elastic bands behind the head.
Most importantly: The order explicitly states masks should cover both the nose and mouth.
Gaiters, Bandanas & Scarves Are Out
Not all masks are created equal.
While airlines have been more liberal with what qualifies as a face covering, the federal government is cracking down. Bandanas, scarves, balaclavas, and ski masks will not count as a mask. Neck gaiters must be at least two layers thick to qualify.
Masks with exhaust valves also won't cut it. Most airlines had already banned many masks with valves onboard.
A Face Shield Alone Won't Cut It, Either
Got a plastic face shield? You'll still need a face mask under it to fly.
The order explicitly says that a face shield and/or goggles aren't enough to satisfy the masking requirements. A face mask that meets the above requirements must be worn underneath it, too.
Some Medical Exemptions Return
Airlines spent the summer cracking down flyers using phony medical exemptions to bypass masking requirements. Delta required an evaluation with a doctor, while many other carriers simply rejected any medical exemptions, bar none.
But as of Feb. 2, travelers with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act are officially exempt from wearing a mask once again.
But What About Punishment?
For months, flying without a mask could land you on an airline's internal no-fly list. But now that masks on planes and in airports are a federal law, does that mean criminal penalties are possible?
Not exactly. While the federal government could charge offenders, it's clear they don't want to.
“(The) CDC does not intend to rely primarily on these criminal penalties but instead strongly encourages and anticipates widespread voluntary compliance as well as support from other federal agencies in implementing additional civil measures enforcing the provisions of this order,” the CDC wrote.
It may not seem like a massive change, but this new federal requirement for masks on planes and airports has been a long time coming. More importantly, the details of the mask mandate could have ramifications for the next time you head to the airport.