What to know about airline mask rules when flying with children as travel spikes across the US

·3 min read
United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9
Flying on a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9. Thomas Pallini/Insider
  • All children over the age of two are required to wear a mask when in US airports and flying.

  • An exception to the rule is when eating, drinking, or taking medication.

  • Flyers that don't comply with mask rules, even children, may be removed from a flight and banned from an airline.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Traveling with children this summer will present a new set of challenges for parents.

Airlines have largely abandoned social distancing practices such as blocking middle seats and boarding aircraft from back to front but mask requirements remain. Air travelers are now required to wear face masks onboard airplanes and in US airports under federal law, with few exceptions.

Read More: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population - and airline CEOs say it's proof that flying is safe

Here's how to navigate face mask rules when traveling with children.

Do children have to wear masks?

All flyers, including children and those vaccinated, are required by federal law to wear a face mask when in a US airport or onboard an airplane. Other countries have varying rules but most require face masks to be worn by travelers.

Children under the age of two are automatically exempt from wearing face masks in the US on airplanes and in airports. All other passengers must wear a mask or apply for an exemption from the airline ahead of a flight.

Airlines, however, are lenient on which masks are allowed. Standard surgical masks are all that are required and they're often the most comfortable. Makeshift masks from bandanas, scarves, ski masks, or balaclavas are not allowed, as well as masks with vents, slits, punctures, holes, or exhaust valves.

Exemptions to the mask rule

Flyers are not required to wear masks when actively eating or drinking, or taking oral medication. Some airlines will advise that flyers mask up in between bites or sips but enforcement of that rule varies by airline.

Some flyers will simply pick at food or have an open drink and claim to be eating to avoid the mask rule, as Senator Ted Cruz was seen doing in July 2020. In those instances, enforcement is at the discretion of flight attendants and other passengers may complain.

Flyers with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask can request an exemption. Each airline's exemption process is different but often requires submitting a request ahead of time and speaking with an airline's airport staff to verify the exemption.

Travelers requesting an exemption should arrive extra early at an airport to ensure enough time to process the request.

How strict are flight attendants?

Enforcement varies during each flight and in each airport as not all airline staff are being proactive with mask enforcement as the pandemic enters its 16th month. As Insider found on recent flights, some flight attendants and airport staff have chosen not to enforce the rule when faced with maskless passengers.

But that's not to say the entire industry has given up on the rule. Many flight attendants and airport staff are strict and will remind passengers to mask up if a covering falls slightly below a passengers' nose, as Insider also found on recent flights.

What happens if you get caught?

The flight crew has the final say on who gets to fly and maskless passengers might face severe consequences for repeatedly violating the rule.

If flight attendants suspect that passengers are intentionally and repeatedly running afoul of mask policies, they may choose to have those passengers removed from the plane. A family was removed from a Frontier Airlines flight from Miami to New York in February after flight attendants said they weren't properly wearing masks.

Airlines may also ban passengers that repeatedly disobey flight attendant instructions to mask up. Since the start of the pandemic, airlines have collectively banned more than 2,500 passengers for not wearing masks, as of January.

If maskless passengers become unruly, the Federal Aviation Administration may seek enforcement action and fines of up to $37,000.

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