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If you won’t wear a mask, some airlines say you can’t fly

Passengers walk past the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on June 16 at Tampa International Airport.

U.S. airlines this week unveiled stricter rules for face coverings, with at least two, American and Southwest, saying they will no longer carry passengers who refuse to wear masks.

Under new rules announced by American, Southwest and United, only children younger than 2 will be permitted to fly without a mask. Delta customers may travel without face coverings but would have to undergo a special screening that the carrier warned could take more than an hour. United said it may deny boarding to travelers who refuse to wear a mask, adding that those with special medical conditions should contact the airline before their flight.

In rolling out stricter policies, airline executives cited passenger surveys in which travelers voiced support for better enforcement of mask mandates. Since May, most major carriers have required passengers to wear masks, but enforcement of the policy has been spotty. There is no federal rule that requires travelers to wear masks when flying, so it is left to the airlines to deal with passengers who refuse.

The result? Even as many passengers have complied with the mandates, others have openly flouted the rules.

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In recent weeks, however, airlines have been more aggressive in enforcing the mask mandates. In an interview this week on NBC’s “Today,” Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said the airline had banned at least 100 people from flying because they refused to wear a mask. On an earnings call this week, Scott Kirby, chief executive of United Airlines, said the carrier has taken action against fewer than 30 people.

Even so, many airline executives said the rules needed to be tightened. Southwest President Tom Nealon told reporters that the new restrictions were needed because they “were simply seeing too many exceptions to the policy.”

Carriers said they will provide masks free to customers who don’t have them.

Airlines have embraced a “layered approach” that they say will keep travelers safe when flying. Masks are a key element, as is social distancing and more frequent cleaning of airplanes and gate areas.

The announcements came during a week when several major carriers announced second-quarter financial results.

Here is a quick roundup of the new policies and when they take effect. (Note that travelers do not have to wear face coverings when eating and drinking.):

  • American Airlines: Starting July 29, all customers must wear face coverings or they will not be allowed to board their flight. The only exception: children 2 or younger. The airline said masks also will be required in all areas of the airport that the carrier controls, including Admirals Club lounges.
  • Delta Air Lines: The carrier’s policy took effect July 20 and requires travelers to wear face coverings. Children are exempted. Travelers who have medical issues must undergo screening before boarding their flight, a process that the airline said could take up to an hour.
  • Southwest Airlines: Starting July 27, all travelers must wear masks. Only children younger than 2 are exempted.
  • United Airlines: Starting July 24, all travelers older than age 2 must wear masks on the flight and throughout the airport. Those who have special issues should contact the airline before their flight.

An earlier version of this post misstated Delta Air Line’s face covering policy for children. This version has been corrected.