United Airlines
United Airlines

United: Wear mask in airport, too, or risk ban

TripFalcon July 23, 2020

Last Update: 2020-07-23 13:29:31

If you're flying United, you already know you have to keep your mask on during your flight. Now, the airline says you also need to keep it on throughout the airport, effective Friday.

The company announced Wednesday ahead of its quarterly earnings call that customers are expected to don masks at United customer service counters and kiosks and United Club locations, plus at gates and baggage claim areas.

"We're really trying to close all the travel gaps," United CEO Scott Kirby said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"If customers refuse to comply, they may be refused travel and banned from flying United at least while the mask requirement is in place," according to a company statement.

The only people excluded from the policy are children under 2 years old; passengers who believe they have an extraordinary circumstance should reach out to the airline or talk to an airport representative.

United Airlines passengers flying during the coronavirus pandemic must fill out a health assessment during online check-in, on its mobile app or at the airport. United Airlines
United Airlines passengers flying during the coronavirus pandemic must fill out a health assessment during online check-in, on its mobile app or at the airport. United Airlines

Passengers can expect to see signs throughout airports reminding them of the policy, as well as verbal reminders from employees. United workers will offer a free mask if customers aren't wearing one; those who don't comply will receive a reminder card detailing the policy.

Southwest and American Airlines issued new mask guidance this week as well.

"Effective July 27, due to the safety risk of COVID-19 transmission by individuals not wearing a face covering, Southwest will require that all Southwest customers wear a face covering or mask over their nose and mouth, and there will be no exemptions to our face covering requirement, except for children under the age of 2," according to a company statement. "If a customer is unable to wear a face covering or mask for any reason, Southwest regrets that we will be unable to transport the individual."

American Airlines' updated mask requirement, which requires all customers over 2 years old to wear masks at airports and on board, goes into effect July 29. "This updated policy expands American’s face covering requirement to include all areas of the airports at which American operates, including Admirals Club lounges, as well as on board all American flights and does not allow for exemptions for those over 2 years old," per a news release.

United workers are also subject to the company's policy, according to an internal memo obtained by USA TODAY.

"While we already require employees to wear masks in any shared spaces, including the airport terminal, break rooms and elevators, not everyone is wearing a mask when they should be. So we’ve made the policy and consequences even more clear: If an employee violates this policy, they are subject to discipline up to and including termination," the memo from Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources and labor relations, reads.

United CEO: Flying is 'one of the safest environments' indoors

Kirby said on CNBC that flying is "one of the safest environments that you can be in indoors."

"It's not like being in a restaurant or an office building or even a hospital for that matter," he added, due to air flow and air filtration. The company announced an enhanced ventilation system earlier this week.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian, too, spoke of safety on NBC's Today Show on Wednesday, and the importance of masks. "If you board the plane and you insist on not wearing your mask, we will insist  you don't fly Delta," Bastian said.

And experts tend to agree on plane safety.

"As an indoor location, planes are much safer than bars or restaurants," Dr. Keith Armitage told the USA TODAY Network. Armitage is the medical director of the University Hospitals Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health in Cleveland. "If everyone on the plane kept their mask on for a two- or three-hour plane ride, I think the risk is pretty low."

United said Tuesday that it lost $1.63 billion in the second quarter as revenue plunged 87%, and it will operate at barely over one-third of capacity through September as the coronavirus throttles air travel.

Kirby said that demand has taken a step backward in July from where it was in mid-June, but it now seems to have bottomed.

"We expect we're kind of back to where we were in late May and that demand will start to gradually recover once again as we get through the rest of the year," he added.

He said, however, that revenue will likely get to about 50% of what it was in 2019 in a pre-vaccine world. Once a vaccine is available and is widely distributed, the company expects to quickly recover.

The airline is planning for a scenario where it takes until late next year before that really happens but hopes for better than that, Kirby said on the company's second-quarter earnings call.

Delta CEO Bastian added on Today: "We need the demand to come back, so I don’t know if government assistance is the answer. What we really need is a vaccine, we need some medical confidence back in consumers, and we need to continue to restore confidence in air travel."

'We're going to have to reduce the size of the airline,' United CEO says

United warned employees for months that mass layoffs loomed if travel didn't rebound, and the airline this month put a grim face on the expected tally.

In a memo to employees, the Chicago-based airline said 36,000 employees, or 45% of its front-line workers in the U.S. and more than a third of its overall workforce of 95,000, face layoffs on or around Oct. 1. The most affected groups: flight attendants and airport customer service and gate agents, which account for 26,000 of the 36,000.

Kirby referred to the 36,000 figure as "a last resort."

"If the crisis is going to last as long as we think is at least possible, we're going to have to reduce the size of the airline until there is a widely available vaccine, and because of that we're going to have to reduce employment," he said on CNBC. "I'm confident that we can make it through the crisis without any more funding, but it's going to also have an impact on employment."

President Brett Hart echoed these sentiments on the company's earnings call: "On Oct. 1, we are planning to be a smaller team and airline in response to the depressed demand environment."

The airline burned through $40 million a day from April through June, but said it will trim losses to $25 million a day in the third quarter by slashing costs.

Kirby said United cut its cash-burn rate below its closest rivals by shrinking its schedule to meet lower demand and cutting costs across the company. In a statement, he said the moves “positioned United to both survive the COVID crisis and capitalize on consumer demand when it sustainably returns.”

United’s August schedule has already been adjusted downward given demand, and its September schedule is still not finalized. 

"We do expect that demand recovery, which stalled in recent weeks, will begin to recover again when new cases start to fall, quarantines are lifted and borders are reopened," Andrew Nocella, executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said on the earnings call.

Nocella said the company believes it has seen the worst of international passenger revenue declining. United has much more international exposure than its rivals.

Source: usatoday