Mixed messages: Aeroflot creates mask-free zone on flights with mandatory mask policy

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Masks have become a part of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic, and an essential packing item for anyone traveling. Almost 40 out of 50 states in the U.S. have a mask mandate in place, and most airlines around the world are requiring mask-wearing from all passengers and crew members.

But what happens when passengers refuse to comply? It differs from airline to airline. Some airlines will divert a plane and remove the uncomplying passenger from the flight, others will fine the individual, others will even ban a passenger from future flights.

The common theme is that there are lasting consequences for anyone not willing to comply with mask-wearing policies.

But in a recently-leaked memo from Russian airline Aeroflot, as reported by Live and Lets Fly, it seems that the airline is taking a different approach to dealing with those refusing to wear masks: a small, anti-mask section at the back of the plane. A spokesperson for the airline confirmed that “Dedicated seats are allocated to passengers who declare their refusal to use masks after the doors are closed.” This from the same airline that also said in a press release that “Passengers who refuse to duly wear face masks for any reasons will be denied boarding. ”

Why masks on planes matter

Before we dive into this specific policy, let’s talk about why masks on planes matter in the first place.

According to the World Health Organization, “masks should be worn when you’re in crowded settings, where you can’t be at least 1 meter from others, and in rooms with poor or unknown ventilation…if you have any doubts, it’s safer to simply wear a mask.”

Being trapped inside a metal tube hurtling through the air with fellow passengers mere inches away certainly qualifies as a crowded setting.

Multiple studies have concluded that wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Video evidence from lab studies shows that masks can help block the kind of respiratory droplets that spread the virus. And a recent study published in Health Affairs suggests that U.S. states with mask mandates in place experienced a slowdown in the spread of COVID-19.

“I think the biggest thing with COVID now that shapes all of this guidance on masks is that we can’t tell who’s infected,” said Peter Chin-Hong, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, in an interview with UCSF. “You can’t look in a crowd and say, oh, that person should wear a mask. There’s a lot of asymptomatic infection, so everybody has to wear a mask.”

While wearing a mask may not eliminate all risk, there is significant evidence (heads up: PDF link) that validates the recommendation for mask-wearing anytime you are around others (including on your next flight).

Related: Why it’s clear an FAA mask mandate is long overdue

Avoiding diversion costs but risking passengers and crew

On paper, Aeroflot has “tightened control over face mask mandate adherence on board,” according to a press release from the airline. But the leaked memo, which was confirmed by an Aeroflot spokesperson to Live and Lets Fly, does present a contradiction.

As reported by the Washington Post, it can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 to divert a flight because of a passenger’s behavior (whether that’s not complying with mask policies or other disruptive actions). That cost varies widely depending on size of the plane, landing fees, fuel charges and how long the diversion delays the flight.

With diversion costing a pretty penny, I can understand airlines wanting to avoid that option whenever possible. However, if the only consequence for maskless passengers, who potentially risk the health and safety of fellow travelers and crew, is having to move to another section of the aircraft, what kind of message does that send?

Sure, not wanting to sit at the back of the plane may deter some passengers who paid to pick their seats or who booked premium-class cabins from ignoring mask policies. But it may not make a difference for anyone who booked a standard ticket in the main cabin.

Mask-wearing is an important part of keeping everyone on board a flight safe, and there is evidence to support that. It puts passengers’ health at risk for there to not be any sort of retribution beyond a seat change for those who willfully ignore safety protocols. Moreso, it’s not safe for the flight attendants who have to service those areas.

Bottom line

Whether or not you personally agree with mask-wearing doesn’t matter when it comes to these situations. At the end of the day, these airlines have mask policies in place, and that means passengers should be required to adhere to those safety protocols.

There needs to be some level of consequence — whether that means banning a passenger from future flights, issuing a fine of some sort, or something else  — for violating an airline’s mask policy or you’re just rewarding bad (and dangerous) behavior.

Featured image by Hispanolistic/Getty Images

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