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Parents, Airlines Fight Over Face Masks for Children

A flyer waits at an airport wearing a face mask.

A flyer waits at an airport wearing a face mask.

Although airline face covering policies are well established, the question of usage for children is still up in the air. While the major carriers require everyone two years old and above to use a face mask for the duration of their flights, the World Health Organization suggests it may not be necessary.

How young is too young to wear a face covering aboard an aircraft? That’s the question both parents and airlines are trying to sort out as they navigate a new world of aviation. A report by ABC News says the contentious topic is creating issues for those on both sides of the issue.

“What do you want me to do – duct tape his face?”

Since all of the major American carriers instituted face covering policies for flights, parents have found themselves on the losing end when children won’t mask up. The issue is well documented: In August 2020, a parent of an autistic child flying Southwest Airlines had their family escorted off the aircraft when the child with sensory processing disorders wouldn’t keep a mask on. Later in the month, a FlyerTalker asked if they should cancel their family flight because they were worried about keeping a covering on their child.

In September 2020, ABC News reported the case of Rachel Davis, who claims she was removed off a flight because her child wouldn’t keep a face covering on. Exacerbated, the mother called it her lowest point as a parent.

“What do you want me to do — duct tape his face?” Davis asked. “He’s 2 years old, he doesn’t get it!”

Parents are now asking airlines to reconsider the minimum age for wearing a face covering aboard an airline. They point to guidance from the World Health Organization, which now says children five and younger should not be required to don a face covering.

“There’s a whole bunch of reasons that there could be for [children five and under] not wanting to wear a mask,” Charles Leocha, president and cofounder of advocacy group Travelers United, told ABC News. “And I think that at some point we have to have some common sense coming into this situation, especially when you’ve got mothers and families traveling together, and you’re saying everybody has to go.”

Although pediatric experts say explaining to children why face coverings can help stop the spread of COVID-19, it may not be enough to get a small child to keep one on for a long flight. In addition to dropping the mandate for toddlers and small children, another idea would be to keep middle seats blocked to promote social distancing on aircraft.

Airlines Stand Strong With Face Covering Policies

While families are fighting against the face covering mandate, airlines are standing strong behind their policies. To date, the U.S. based carriers say they have banned over 700 flyers temporarily for not wearing a face mask during the flight. In all situations, those deemed guilty by gate agents and cabin crews are banned from the flight, with their entire itinerary cancelled – no matter where they are.

BradyD October 8, 2020

GET IT TOGETHER!!! Most of you are in a state of complete moral panic. Kids are not going to kill us. Look at all of the school studies. pattermj is clearly not well versed on this topic. Young kids are not vectors for this virus. It isn't the flu. Teachers get Covid at the same rate and sometimes even less than the general public. We do not ask kids to wear masks during flu season, which is worse than Covid for some demographics, kids included. Please take a deep breath and understand what the true risks are.

BBSHOPSINGER October 7, 2020

The word is "exasperated", not "exacerbated". Two different words.

pattermj October 5, 2020

Ok few tings I just have to chime in on but I will state my biases: I am a virologist (PhD), public health infectious disease epidemiologist (M), a parent of two young children (3 and 1), and I just flew last month. Point 1: There is no evidence, epidemiologic or research based, that children are less likely to spread CoV-2. The references from months ago were based on studies with inherent biases which reduced our understanding of the role children could play in the pandemic. Point 2: The lung size of a children is NOT a factor in their ability to spread. I have no idea where this came from. What matters is relative velocity at point of mouth or nose, viral load of the saliva or other bodily fluid, and how often such expulsions occur. I think recent data shows children are just as likely, if not more, to be active spreaders (honestly children are biohazards, take it from me). Point 3: Children are less likely to develop severe disease, NOT LESS LIKELY TO BECOME INFECTED OR SPREAD DISEASE. I hate when these elements are confused. What I personally cared about, as a parent, back in Feb was the first aspect but as a nation we should recognize they pose an equal or greater risk of catching and spreading the virus as adults. Point 4: Masks help reduce the spread of the virus by containing a larger portion of the aerosol particles within the mask instead of spreading it to the surrounding environment. It is not perfect. It does some protection of the user but honestly not much (to my knowledge and evidence published, but is more aimed at protecting others. Now, my family did a trip this last month - cross country with 1 stop each way with plane switch. Our 3 yr old has been exposed to mask wearing since May, she understands she can't hug/get too close to others because of the coronavirus. She did great on the planes, keeping her mask on rather consistently and not getting too fussy. Our 16 month old was of course not required to keep a mask on and there is no way he would have. He had a major meltdown on 1 of 4 flights where I have to walk the aisle wearing a mask the entire time. My biggest concern was if he was somehow infected and I was going to be linked to a superspreader event as an infectious disease guy. Luckily we were not (he was healthy) but this could and should be a valid concern for any airline. I could see a 2-4 year old, even older if having special needs, as being very challenged by a mask requirement. I think from a business and public health standpoint there is a clear benefit of having children wear masks. I also think there is clear evidence that any human (also potentially a number of animal species) are capable of spreading the virus. As such, it is within everyone's interest for everyone to wear a mask. I do not think we would have traveled without our 3 yr old being comfortable wearing a mask and I don't think we will travel without the younger one also being comfortable. I recognize there is a risk between now and then and the 2 yr old limit is really a random number decided upon by industry but it is at least something. What I would recommend is that anyone with children who are challenged by wearing masks to simply consider if the trip is truly necessary. Is it so necessary that you may be linked somehow to a spreader event? Either caused by or your child expose to? While the odds are extremely low this is still something all should consider avoiding as masks take something unlikely and make it highly unlikely. I also ask those folks seeing children travel, with parents struggling to get their children to wear their masks, to show some pity. The parents want everyone safe, happy, and not screaming. Kids sometimes suck. A good parent works hard to avoid this and if you see that parent doing everything they can, just be understanding and be glad you aren't them. If you are an experienced flyer you already knew to pick a better seat or, at worst, have noise canceling headphones. It is a short flight, the odds of any risk to you are small expect to a little bit of lost sleep. Pity the good parents who try and help convince the airline employees they are trying but call out those parents so stuck on their phones or computers for failing at their default role. Best of luck to all flyers.

lyst October 2, 2020

I know adults who brag about not wearing a mask for their 3 hour trip because they sip water and eat the whole time. Why are adults allowed to take off their masks at all if they are so effective? Aren't they putting others at risk then? But we choose to focus on children not wearing masks!! And what ever happened to social distancing? Guess that's not important when flying. We have totally lost common sense.

txirish October 2, 2020

This is difficult. Wrangling a two-year old is a challenge even for diligent parents. But, one can't dismiss children as potential spreaders. One recent study showed that infected children with no symptoms have higher levels of virus than adults hospitalized with Covid. If the child is crying or yelling, or clambering around adjacent seats, the probability of infecting others goes up. The best solution would be to not fly with a child that won't wear a required mask. I'm sure there are trips of life-and-death importance, but many others could be avoided. Why risk infecting those people that have no choice but to fly? I've canceled all personal and business travel, going from 1K to zero. I'll fell comfortable flying when I've been vaccinated.