Travel

Flying with kids: Six questions about mask rules, answered

Around the time his son was turning 2 last year, Chris Hassan started seeing stories about families with young kids getting removed from planes because their young children wouldn’t wear masks.

“We were really stressed about that,” said Hassan, who lives in Brazil and writes about family travel for the website Upgraded Points.

Mask rules — now backed up by a Transportation Security Administration mandate — continue to be a stress point for parents of young children. Kids under 2 don’t have to wear one (and shouldn’t, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says). But once they turn 2, it’s a different story.

“Anyone over 2, boom: You have to wear a mask,” said Hassan, who has written about the rules on U.S. and foreign airlines.

More than a year after airlines first introduced mask policies, families are still running into trouble. Earlier this month, a woman who said on social media that her son had never worn a mask before was forced to leave a plane before takeoff when the boy couldn’t keep his face covered.

As international borders with Europe and other parts of the world prepare to reopen and holiday travel season approaches, many who haven’t flown in the United States since last year may be unfamiliar with mask requirements for kids. Here’s what they need to know.

What is the rule for children and masks on planes?

According to the TSA’s mandate, which is in effect through January, everyone 2 and older has to wear a face covering in airports, planes, trains and other forms of transportation.

The mandate says masks can be removed briefly to eat, drink or take medication, but it warns: “Prolonged periods of mask removal are not permitted for eating or drinking; the mask must be worn between bites and sips.”

Many foreign airlines have different age requirements for mask-wearing: Air France, for example, requires kids 11 and older to wear one, and Lufthansa’s requirement starts at 6. But the stricter rules apply if those carriers are flying to or from the United States.

“If TSA’s age limit is lower than a foreign air carrier’s age limit, the TSA age requirement applies and the younger child must wear a mask,” spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email.

That means foreign tourists who may have traveled under less-strict rules outside of the United States will need to prepare young kids to mask up for any visit to the country once the widespread travel ban is lifted in early November.

Who enforces the rule?

Because masks are required in airports and on planes, airline employees throughout the air travel process are tasked with reminding passengers about the rules.

“At the ticket counter and gate, we have extra masks for customers who may need them, and onboard, our crew members ensure customers are following the federal mandate,” American Airlines spokeswoman Sarah Jantz said in an email. “There are additional masks onboard for customers who may need one.”

On board, flight attendants are the ones interacting with passengers and reminding them about mask rules.

What kind of mask do kids have to wear?

Same as adults, just appropriately sized for smaller faces. In the United States, that generally means surgical masks, respirators or cloth face coverings that cover the nose and mouth and have a snug fit around the side of the face. Bandannas, scarves, balaclavas and coverings with valves are prohibited.

Are there mask exemptions for kids?

The federal mask mandate includes an exemption for travelers “with certain disabilities.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that is “not meant to cover people with disabilities for whom wearing a mask might only be difficult.” The agency notes that asthma probably does not qualify a traveler for an exemption.

Airlines have complicated — and far from uniform — processes for requesting an exemption. “It’s rigorous for everyone’s safety,” Delta says on its website. Delta says passengers who are not able to wear a mask must go to the airport early to go through a “Clearance-to-Fly” process that can take more than an hour.

American, on the other hand, asks passengers to contact the airline at least 72 hours before departure to request an exemption. Documentation from a medical professional and proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within three days of departure is required. United has a “multistep approach” that includes submitting a request form at least seven days before departure and proof of a negative test.

Southwest also requires an application for an exemption seven days before traveling, with a doctor’s note. Passengers may also need a private medical screening over the phone and must test negative within three days of traveling.

JetBlue says it is a “very rare case” when a traveler qualifies for a medical exemption to mask rules. Passengers are asked to contact the airline “well in advance of travel” for instructions.

What can happen if kids refuse to wear a mask on a plane?

Airlines warn that anyone who fails to wear a mask could be denied boarding, removed from the plane, subject to penalties under federal law, or prohibited from flying the carrier in the future.

There have been several high-profile instances involving families that were forced off a plane after a child — often aged 2 or 3 — could not keep a mask on. In the instance mentioned earlier, a woman said she and her group, including her 2-year-old son, had to get off an American Airlines flight after he couldn’t keep a mask on.

American said the party had to get off the plane at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for “failing to comply with crew member instructions to remain seated while on an active taxiway and to wear face coverings securely over their nose and mouth.” They were rebooked on the next flight to their destination, Colorado Springs, the airline said.

Jantz said in an email that the American team, including flight attendants, “is mindful of parents who might find it difficult to keep a mask on young children two and over. Our team is guided to work with parents who may be having difficulty keeping a mask on their young children, especially when the parent is wearing their mask.”

Delta spokesman Drake Castañeda said in an email that he is not aware of many situations where young kids have trouble with masks. But, he said, employees “treat these situations with human situational flexibility,” including giving notices to parents of the requirements when needed.

And JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski said in an email that crew - “many who are parents themselves” - are aware that kids might find it hard to always keep their masks on in some circumstances.

“Our crewmembers will work with parents to gain compliance, understanding every situation is different,” he said. “Crewmembers are empowered to use their best judgement, while keeping in mind their first responsibility is to maintain the safest possible travel experience for all customers and crewmembers and maintain compliance with the federal mask mandate.”

How can parents prepare their kids to wear a mask?

Practice is crucial, especially if young children are new to face coverings. Because the CDC says not to put masks on kids younger than 2 — but 2-year-olds have to wear them on planes — the learning curve could be steep.

Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and medical editor of HealthyChildren.org, said very young children shouldn’t wear a mask because they are less able to verbalize if they’re having trouble and less able to remove the covering if it gets caught or if they have a breathing issue.

For kids 2 and older, wearing a face covering is “one level of protection from covid,” she said: “Especially for kids who have not been able to get vaccinated yet, that’s one of the best ways to prevent infection.”

In preparation for travel, she said, parents should start getting young children ready a month or two before a trip. She said even mature 18-month-olds can start to practice.

“You want to start with a minute or two at a time,” she said. Parents can use an hourglass-type timer so kids can watch for the end of the time period. She suggested combining the practice with some other type of activity, such as reading a book or watching a video - all supervised.

She said parents should also provide ways for kids to keep their hands busy so they don’t try to remove the mask: tape, stickers, crayons, even sticky notes.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” Shu said. For older kids, parents can try to use incentives that might motivate the kids - though, she said, many school-age kids are already accustomed to long periods of mask-wearing and “oftentimes, they’re better than adults.”

Although airlines allow masks to come off briefly for eating and drinking, she said, it’s best not to remove them at all since young kids don’t have the protection of vaccination yet. If it’s necessary to remove, she said, do it at short times when other people are mostly masked, such as before beverage service or after everyone else has finished.

Hassan, whose son is now 3, recommended finding a mask that is comfortable and has a cool design that the child will like. The family also wears masks regularly in their daily life.

“It’s really just about practice,” he said.

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