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How to Ask a Seatmate to Mask: The New Etiquette for Maskless Flights

Strategies for staying calm and polite while asking people to take coronavirus precautions on a maskless flight.

The Washington Post

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Woman on plane looking nervous while wearing two masks

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

In the weeks after a federal judge in Florida struck down the federal mask mandate for planes and other transportation settings, Americans met the change with a mix of excitement and concern. Some travelers welcomed the news, even cheering on planes when pilots announced the ruling. For others, the prospect of flying with unmasked seatmates has been a source of anxiety.

If you are nervous about flying on an aircraft full of bare faces, you can take steps to make the journey less daunting. Below, psychology and etiquette experts offer advice on how to calm your nerves and courteously navigate a maskless flight.

How to stay calm

While you might need to travel by plane for weddings or funerals, Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, said travelers might consider doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether to fly for pleasure trips. “I think the public really does want to say to themselves, ‘Okay, what am I willing to do and not do?’” he said. “‘What’s worth it and not worth it?’”

Before your trip, make a plan, said Andrea Bonior, a psychologist and Georgetown University faculty member who has contributed to The Washington Post. “I don’t think rehearsing is too much in this situation,” she said. Think about how many masks you will bring and how you will eat and drink if you don’t want to do so on the plane, and build in extra time to further reduce stress.

If wearing a mask makes you feel safer, Plante said, you can wear a quality one, such as an N95 or KN95, regardless of what others choose to do.

Bonior said, “Even if you’ve flown before during covid and found it okay, don’t be surprised if it feels more anxiety-provoking now if you’re concerned about mask-wearing, because it is going to be a different universe than before.”

Airline analyst Timothy O’Neil-Dunne also recommended keeping a fair distance from your fellow travelers where possible — though he noted that can be tough in crowded airports.

Passengers who find their anxiety ramping up can also practice diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness techniques, Plante said. Distracting yourself by listening to soothing music, reading a book or picking up another activity can also be helpful. But plan those strategies ahead of time. “It’s hard to make these kinds of decisions when you’re in the middle of a panic attack,” he said.

How to ask someone in your row to mask up

Asking someone seated near you to mask up requires a nuanced approach, and experts don’t recommend it in every scenario. If you’re going to ask someone, Plante said, you should “appeal to their goodness and say, ‘I hate to bother you with this, but I’m visiting my elderly relative and I’m really worried about the virus’ or ‘I’m immunocompromised. Would you be willing to mask up for this trip?’”

Plante said you can bring extra masks in case they don’t have one. “I think most reasonable people, when asked with great respect and compassion, would say, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Bonior said travelers don’t need to give a reason, though it might help. You can acknowledge that it is a “tricky subject.”

“There will be plenty of people who just outright say, ‘No, I’m good,’” she said. “But at least you know that you tried.”

On the other hand, Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and former flight attendant, said passengers should focus on their own behavior. “You can’t expect people to behave in a way that you would want them to behave, because that’s unrealistic,” she said.

She said that by expecting fellow travelers to wear masks, “you’re just kind of setting yourself up for a disagreement or maybe an altercation because it is such a heated issue. All you can do is protect yourself.”

Juliet Mitchell, an etiquette expert who also goes by “Ms. J” and previously worked in the airline industry for over a decade, advised assessing the situation before making that kind of request. “I think before going straight to that point, stay in your bubble and observe that person’s energy, because sometimes you can feel, ‘Hmm, this is not one I want to step into,’” she said.

She said passengers can also introduce themselves and attempt to establish a rapport beforehand to make the other person feel comfortable.

What to do if someone is coughing without covering their mouth

The sound of coughing may elicit more anxiety than normal during the pandemic. If your neighbor on a flight is not making a good-faith effort to contain their germs, you might consider asking them to try.

Plante recommended using a “polite sandwich” strategy: “People get defensive when they feel attacked, and it’s so important to start and end with that respect, compassion, politeness, but give the message in the middle,” he said.

For instance, you could say, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you. Would you mind covering your mouth the next time you cough? I’m feeling nervous about flying right now, and this would help me feel safer. I would really appreciate it.”

However, Whitmore said, you should not simply ask someone to cover their mouth. Instead, if you are concerned about the coronavirus risk, you might preemptively offer nearby passengers some hand sanitizer from your bag the way you would a stick of gum. Or offer them a tissue if they sneeze.

“That, to me, is less invasive and less combative. … You’re being the courteous passenger by taking care of yourself and also it appears that you’re also being considerate of others around you,” she said.

Should you ask a flight attendant about moving?

If you feel uncomfortable, Bonior said, passengers can also ask a flight attendant about being reseated, though some people may see that as an escalation. “But … if you’re sitting there with Stage 3 cancer and somebody’s coughing unmasked next to you, to what extent are we going to fret about whether we’re impolite?” she said.

O’Neil-Dunne said that in general, the airline will do what it can to accommodate you, but it may be hard with high demand and packed planes.

What to do if someone gives you a hard time for masking

Masking is an individual choice now, but if a fellow passenger confronts you about your preference, you can take steps to defuse the situation. Don’t take the bait or engage, Plante said. You can also try to respond with humor.

“You might say, ‘Oh, I think you’re going to want me to wear this mask after I ate all those garlic fries,’” he said. You can also explain your reasoning for keeping your face covered.

Can you get a refund?

Some airlines have said they will work with passengers who would rather not fly as a result of the rule change.

“We have not seen a significant number of our guests who are expressing concerns about flying now that the federal mask mandate has expired,” Alaska Airlines said in an emailed statement. “However, if a guest contacts us with an issue, we will work with them on a case-by-case basis.”

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told the “Today” show last month that the carrier was working with customers who are immunocompromised or have other concerns to find other options or give them a refund. A spokesperson for the airline confirmed that option this week in an email, and said, “Customers with special circumstances should call our customer service number and we’ll work with them to find the best solution.”

If you speak with a customer service representative, Plante recommended acknowledging their stress and refraining from being demanding. “I think if you can be gracious … then I think that goes a long way,” he said. “It softens people and then they’re more likely to want to help.”

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published May 4, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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