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As a source of friction between airline passengers, masks may be supplanting that old bugbear – sudden seat reclining.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has stepped in after several in-flight brawls involving passengers who refused to wear facemasks. IATA has pleaded with all travellers to wear face coverings in the air – and has warned of consequences for those who don’t comply.

IATA says it has spoken out “following recent reports of travellers refusing to wear a face covering during a flight”.

“While this is confined to a very small number of individuals, some on-board incidents have become violent, resulting in costly and extremely inconvenient diversions to offload these passengers,” IATA said.

A few days ago, a fight broke out aboard an American Airlines domestic flight from Las Vegas after a passenger refused to don a mandatory facemask.

American Airlines said the passenger refused to cover their face and was asked to leave the plane, in accordance with company policy. That’s when things got rough. Another passenger, who uses the Twitter handle @thefatjack, posted a short video on social media as the flight crew and passengers waited for the Las Vegas Police Department to arrive and escort the passenger off the plane.

    Nothing like a morning Fight Club as tempers flared on @AmericanAir LAS-CLT flight today….So much for social distancing! #AAFightClub @thefatjack pic.twitter.com/NN9lj8enbf

    — Caryn Ross (@SuperSassyMama) August 17, 2020


American Airlines has required all passengers to wear facemasks since 11 May 2020.

In another incident, an in-flight brawl broke out on a KLM flight after two passengers refused to wear a facemask. Spanish authorities met the flight from Amsterdam on its arrival in Ibiza, and the duo were arrested. Footage posted on Twitter by a passenger aboard the flight shows fists flying while cabin crew and passengers struggle to restrain two passengers.

Responsible masked passenger. Source: IATA

    “Stoppen nu, er zijn kinderen hiero!”Knokpartij op @klm vlucht naar Ibiza. Dronken passagier weigert mondkapje te dragen

     Panic and violent brawl! Unruly passenger on board KLM flight,he refused to wear face mask 😷#incident #klm #avgeek #aviation #planespotting @KLM_press pic.twitter.com/RPM0g1Kqh9

     — The Mic High Club Luchtvaart Podcast (@MicHighClub) August 2, 2020


(You don’t need to speak Dutch to guess what “dronken passagier” might mean.)

“Flight safety was not endangered,” KLM stated.

Wearing a face covering during the travel journey is essential for the safety of all passengers and crew during the Covid-19 pandemic, IATA has reiterated.

The mask situation is complicated by the existence of weird conspiracy theories, promoted on social media, contending that masks are unnecessary because Covid-19 doesn’t exist, or that it’s all part of a sinister plot to take over people’s brains or kill them by vaccinating them with microchips. In one bizarre spinoff, the trolls suggest coronavirus victims are really just “crisis actors”, filmed for the benefit of TV.

Back on the side of sanity, IATA’s director general and chief executive, Alexandre de Juniac, points out wearing face coverings is a key recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) guidance for safe operations during the pandemic, as developed jointly with the World Health Organisation and governments.

“This is a call for common sense and taking responsibility,” de Juniac said. “The vast majority of travellers understand the importance of face covering both for themselves as well as for their fellow passengers, and airlines appreciate this collective effort. But a small minority create problems.

“Safety is at the core of aviation, and compliance with crew safety instructions is the law. Failure to comply can jeopardise a flight’s safety, disrupt the travel experience of other passengers and impact the work environment for crew.”

Obligations under Conditions of Carriage

A plane ticket is a contract under which the passenger agrees to the airline’s terms and Conditions of Carriage. Those conditions can include the airline’s right to refuse carriage to a person whose behaviour interferes with a flight, violates government regulations or causes other passengers to feel unsafe.  Airlines also highlight the need to wear a face covering during the booking process, at check-in, at the gate and in onboard announcements.

Failure to comply means that a passenger faces the risk of being offloaded from their flight, restrictions on future carriage or penalties under national laws.

 Face Covering is part of a layering of measures

According to tests at the University of Edinburgh, face covering, when properly worn, can cut the forward spread of potential Covid-19 droplets from the mouth by 90%.

IATA’s medical advisor, Dr David Powell, adds: “The research we have seen to date, and our own investigations with the world’s airlines, tell us that the risk of catching Covid-19 on a flight remains very low. There appears to be a number of factors supporting that. The high flow rate of cabin air from top to bottom, constant filtering of air through state-of-the-art HEPA filters, the fact that all seats face the same direction and of course wearing a face covering and sanitisation of the aircraft all play a part.

“This is not just about protecting yourself.  It’s about protecting everyone else on the flight.”

Written by Peter Needham