Beginning May 4, all travelers who step foot on a plane operated by JetBlue will need to wear a crucial accessory: a face mask. The airline announced Monday that in one week, it will be mandatory for all passengers to cover their mouths and noses upon boarding their flights to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. JetBlue crew members have already received the same mandate.
"This is the new flying etiquette," JetBlue's president and chief operating officer, Joanna Geraghty, said in a statement paired with the announcement. "Onboard, cabin air is well circulated and cleaned through filters every few minutes but this is a shared space where we have to be considerate of others."
In announcing the rule, JetBlue became the first major U.S. airline to require passengers to wear a face covering of some sort throughout their journey — from check-in through the moment they step off the plane at their destination.
But it's also far from alone in an industry that has been steadily moving toward a more widespread use of masks: American Airlines and Delta Air Lines recently announced plans to require their flight crews to wear face coverings beginning this week, while United and Frontier issued similar orders earlier this month. American and Delta have also said they will be encouraging passengers to wear masks by handing them out before flights.
Beyond U.S. borders, meanwhile, Canadian authorities have already mandated that all air travelers moving through Canadian airports will be required to cover their noses and mouths.
The general shift in the airline industry follows an important change earlier this month in the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials amended their initial suggestion against wearing masks, saying that in fact, even informal cloth or fabric face coverings — even when worn by presumably healthy people — can serve a role in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
The Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing tens of thousands of crew members at 20 airlines, including United and Frontier, has been vocal in pushing for greater use of face masks — not just by flight crews but passengers, as well. The union's international president, Sara Nelson, outlined why in a letter sent last week to federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
ENOUGH! This was TODAY on a four hour flight. This is not okay. Masks must be mandated by DOT/HHS in airports and on airplanes. Essential travel only, with proper PPE. #COVID19 #StopTheSpread pic.twitter.com/TzwJyVRBoD— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) April 27, 2020
"At airlines employing AFA member flight attendants, at least 250 have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and flight attendants have died as a result of the virus too," Nelson said.
She added that flight attendants, whom she described as "aviation's first responders," have been grappling with feelings of guilt, fear and uncertainty about their position in the pandemic. And she called for regulators to push for an even further step, noting the difficulties of observing social distancing recommendations in a cabin's cramped spaces.
The answer, Nelson said, is "a halt to all leisure travel until the pandemic is brought under control according to health authorities."
As NPR reported Monday, airline passenger demand has plummeted more than 95% from early March, and the International Air Transport Association has found that airlines globally are projected to lose $314 billion this year alone.