Families with toddlers who plan to travel over the holidays may want to avoid booking flights with United Airlines. That is, unless they can be sure any child under two years old can keep a mask on their face for an entire flight. As shown in a recent viral video, United is booting families from their aircraft for toddlers’ “non-compliance” with their mask policy — a policy unfortunately in place, at least in writing, with most other airlines as well.
A young family of three say they were heading to New York to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and to visit family in New Jersey last week when United Airlines forced them off the plane before takeoff because, despite their best efforts, their two-year-old daughter refused to wear a mask.
In a two-minute video posted on Dec. 11, since removed for no apparent reason by Instagram and Twitter, mother and Colorado resident Eliz Orban tearfully describes the experience then inserts footage of her masked husband attempting to put a surgical mask on the little girl while seated in the plane. The girl holds her hands up to her face, cries, and buries her head in his arm to avoid the mask.
As a flight attendant advises passengers over the comms to stow their baggage. A male flight attendant arrives at the aisle and demands the couple “grab their belongings and exit the aircraft,” saying he gave the couple “every opportunity” to get a mask on the child.
“We’re over here holding this mask over her face,” the father objects as he cradles the little girl. The video clearly shows him holding a neck gaiter over his daughter’s mouth and nose with a clasped hand. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says quietly.
The attendant states firmly that “if there’s non-compliance,” it is United’s policy to remove passengers from the flights. “This is compliance,” the father pleads, as the mother, holding the camera, reiterates their attempts to keep their toddler’s face covered.
Orban writes in an Instagram post of the extended video that they were “premier silver members” with United and had flown with the airline four previous times since the start of the pandemic without a problem. Although staffers did retrieve their child’s car seat, the couple’s baggage was shipped to New York without them, and Orban says they’re now “banned” from flying United.
In September, a similar incident went viral when a couple and their child were removed from a WestJet flight after they couldn’t get a 19-month-old to wear a mask at the insistence of WestJet staff. Unlike that case, in which Transport Canada’s official guidance states that children under two “should not wear a mask” and WestJet staff’s decision was misinformed, the official policy of United Airlines states all passengers over the age of two are required to wear face coverings during the entire flight:
If you refuse to follow United’s face covering policy while in the airport or onboard a United flight, you will be refused transport and could also lose your travel privileges on United for at least the time that United’s mandatory face-covering policy is in effect.
United Airlines told The Washington Examiner, “These procedures are not only backed by guidance from the CDC and our partners at the Cleveland Clinic, but they’re also consistent across every major airline.”
This appears to be correct. Alaska, Jetblue, American, Southwest, Hawaiian, and Delta all require masks for children over the age of two. Only Delta makes an exception, at least in their written policy, for “young children who cannot maintain a face covering.” Southwest and Alaska both state on their websites that they will not accommodate passengers who cannot wear a mask, even if they have a medical condition.
The policy disenfranchises families with toddlers and is especially cruel at a time of year families connect and celebrate the holidays with loved ones who live far away. It also contradicts guidance from the World Health Organization that states “children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks.”
Even setting aside children’s “psychosocial needs and developmental milestones” the WHO cites as factors in their guidance, scientific evidence supports the conclusion that young children do not easily transmit COVID. There are very few documented cases of child-to-adult transmission. Indeed, according to reporting by NPR, 40,000 children attending the YMCA at the height of the pandemic weren’t responsible for a single infection cluster.
What’s more, United Airlines boasts that “aircraft cabins are among the safest of public indoor environments.” They cite a Department of Defense study that tracked how fluorescent particles were dispersed through the aircraft cabin and found, “the overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low on the type of aircraft the command contracts to move Department of Defense personnel and their families.” In the Pentagon study, aerosol tracer particles remained detectable in the cabin for less than six minutes on average, compared to 90 minutes in the typical American home.
But while United touts masks as part of the reason the cabins are so safe from aerosolized infectious particles, the U.S. Transportation Command Public Affairs press release summarizing the Pentagon results contains no affirmative statements about the role masks may have played in mitigating particle spread. That makes sense, considering masks cannot contain aerosols, as anyone who’s seen someone smoke or vape through a mask can tell.
Similarly, a Harvard School of Public Health press release also cited by the airline links to another press release which cites, as its strongest point directly relevant to masks worn on flights, a modeling study which found universal mask-wearing on aircraft “may reduce infection risk from respiratory particles to less than 1 percent.”
United’s own claim is that “even when the plane is full, on average only 0.003 percent of infected air particles could enter the breathing zone of seated, masked passengers, according to the DOD study.” So, United’s claim is orders of magnitude better than the best evidence cited in the press release they so proudly reference in support of their policy. United has done extraordinarily little to instill trust in their “science-based” mask policy.
Most American airlines are a pain to travel with, with the cheerful exception of Southwest. United Airlines, however, has truly stepped into the role of airline Scrooge, set on upending the holiday plans of many of the clients who have the hardest time flying to begin with: parents and toddlers.
Not only does it seem those who draft and promote policy for United are unfamiliar with the science of masking children and in-flight masking, but they are overly callous to the exhausting, exasperating, sometimes embarrassing experience of parenting toddlers while flying, much less flying under masking orders.
United Airlines owes this family a profuse apology and generous compensation. As long as United owes the American taxpayers money from their $5 billion CARES Act bailout, compassionate treatment of all clients should be expected in addition to an evidence-based approach to COVID-19 — or at least one that doesn’t turn hard situations into impossible ones.