Ronn TorossianRonn Torossian

As businesses begin to open up and more industries relax regulations, many are wondering openly about the future of air travel, both domestically and internationally. Slowly, brand-by-brand, companies are making announcements.

One of the most recent came from Southwest Airlines, which reportedly told flight crews “not to stop passengers from boarding if they refuse to wear a mask,” according to CNN. In a memo released to the media by Southwest, executives at the airline said: “We will not deny boarding solely based on a customer’s refusal to wear a face covering …”

That report describes this position as “more lax” than other airlines, which have made stricter statements. American, according to CNN, currently has a policy that customers “may be denied boarding” if they’re not wearing a face mask. CNN added that American’s position is: “There could be an isolated situation where a customer may be denied boarding as a last resort …” Look for more coming from American on this question.

JetBlue’s position statement on the issue is more restrictive: “Customers who refuse to comply with our policy will be denied boarding.” Their reasoning was “to help keep us all safe.”

Again, all of these positions are subject to change based on consumer and regulatory response. The different standards underscore the challenge faced by all businesses related to how they’ll open up and what processes they feel are best for their customers. Where to draw the line is a difficult question for these companies, especially as they’re all desperate to get people flying again.

However, Southwest’s statement specifically included an aspect that all companies are hoping to exhibit “empathy and respect.” Instructions to Southwest employees, which were released to the press, said: “You are expected to inform customers of our face covering requirement but are not expected to be the enforcers. Respectfully request customers to comply with wearing a face covering if they are able.”

Southwest, then, appears to be hoping that customers will comply with their requests rather than make an issue of the mask requirement. This position appears to be fairly common across most major U.S. airlines. They plan to request cooperation but don’t plan to harshly enforce the policy.

There’s no doubt this approach is informed both by the overall tension many are already experiencing, as well as the mixed feelings among passengers about masks, and certainly in no small part to the series of serious PR issues related to airline customer service in recent years.

From forcibly ejecting customers alongside misguided PR statements related to that issue, to blowups on social media following the barring of women from wearing leggings on flights, to complaints about legroom, reduced seat space and the ongoing debate about “emotional support animals” on flights, the U.S. airline industry has faced a near-constant state of consumer PR tension. While each of these issues have been specific to certain brands, airlines have been faced with the choice of whether or not to make public statements on these topics.

With this latest announcement from Southwest, the bar has been set, and U.S. airlines will be releasing statements related to it, either to explain their position or to set a new standard. This will be an interesting consumer PR situation to watch.


Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading NY PR firm.