American Airlines to give masks to passengers; other airlines issue new travel guidelines

American Airlines is promising to step up the cleaning of its planes to protect workers and passengers.

The Fort Worth-based airline announced new steps to protect passengers and staff. Other airlines, like Dallas-based Southwest, are considering similar measures.

American will start giving travelers masks and wipes before flights. Flight attendants will also be required to wear masks beginning Saturday.

New cleaning procedures will include using a disinfectant approved by the EPA in customer areas, tray tables, seat buckles, armrests, window shades and seatback screens, as well as doors and overhead bin handles. American will also be protective gear and cleaners for flight attendants and pilots.

“We are looking out for our customers’ well-being to give them peace of mind while they travel with us,” said Kurt Stache, American's senior vice president of customer experience. “We’re moving quickly on these enhancements and we’ll continue to improve the travel experience for our customers and team members as we navigate these times together.”

However, American is not requiring masks for passengers. They’ll be offered masks and sanitizer as supply allows.

“Here in Texas, Governor Abbott announced yesterday that the state is opening back up for business. And they do informal polls, and it shows three quarters of the people think it’s too soon,” said Dallas-based Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly. “So we know that we have work to do to convince people who are willing and able to travel that it’s safe to come to the airport.”

Southwest says it’s in the process of adding Plexiglas shields at ticket counters, gates and cargo agent positions. And while it says most flight attendants already wear masks, it’s still crafting a temporary mask policy.

“I know that one of our competitors had an announcement on that today,” Kelly said. “We’ll certainly be doing everything we can to follow CDC guidelines. But in terms of mandating that customers and employees have to be doing things, stay tuned on that.”

Both airlines say they are upgrading their cleaning procedures.

To help with social distancing, Southwest says it’s considering a cap on bookings so flights aren’t full. They are unusual measures that they hope will get people flying once again, especially as Southwest reports its first quarterly loss in nine years.

“This will very likely reshape the industry to a degree that’s not quite clear,” said Southwest Airlines President Tom Nealon. “But we have a lot of reasons to be confident that Southwest will come out of this very strong, and we’ll be ready to compete aggressively in the new normal environment.”

Jet Blue also announced it will require passengers to wear face coverings beginning on Monday. Passenger must cover their nose and mouth during check-in, boarding, the flight and they leave the plane. It did not indicate if it would provide the masks or if passengers must bring their own.

Delta is also requiring flight attendants to wear face masks through June 30. They are only encouraging passengers to wear masks and are providing them if needed.

United says it intends to leave an empty seat next to each passenger.

The lack of passenger-mandate to wear masks is a concern for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. It represents 27,000 American Airlines flight attendants.

APFA Spokesman Paul Hartshorn says the reason you're seeing fuller flights is due in large part to a drastic drop in the number of daily flights available. The APFA would like to see the middle seats left empty.

“If I'm wearing a mask I'm protecting you but if you're not wearing a mask, I'm more vulnerable,” Hartshorn said. “I think we're in unprecedented times right now. This is something the airline industry has never experienced.”

Ron McCallum is an aviation attorney and pilot. He says airlines need to take every precaution to avoid any future legal problems.

“If they're going to start that many people together in a closed environment, which it is for the most part, then they're absolutely risking an absolute outbreak of this disease to occur from their aircraft from their individual flights,” McCallum said.

Travel guidelines are being updated daily. Be sure to check with your airline carrier before arriving to the airport.