Kevin Garvey wants to know if he’s required to wear a mask on a plane. So does just about everyone else who has to fly this summer.

Here’s the situation that prompted his question: On a recent flight from Fort Myers, Florida, to Chicago, two women seated in front of him dropped their face coverings. In an age of social distancing, he assumed that a flight attendant would quickly remedy the situation.

It didn’t happen. A crew member didn’t even seem to notice that they were unmasked, he says.

“At no time did they wear their masks while talking to the flight attendant, nor did she remind them to put on their masks,” says Garvey, a retired lawyer from Chicago. “The flight attendants did nothing to enforce their own directives.”

Are you required to wear a mask on a plane? It’s really complicated

When it comes to air travel, mask rules are complicated. While airlines require face coverings, at least on paper, they don’t enforce them uniformly. Or at all. Plus, the legal basis for requiring a mask is debatable. There are also numerous exceptions to the policies. As airlines start filling their middle seats again, these issues are deepening passenger concerns about the safety of air travel this summer.

Recently, Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group for the major U.S. airlines, announced voluntary health-related policies. The policies included an industrywide requirement that every passenger bring a face covering and wear it at the airport, on the jet bridge and aboard the aircraft. Passengers who fail to comply may be grounded, although A4A said it will leave it to each carrier to resolve the matter according to its own policies.

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“We want passengers to know that they should expect to see this added layer of protection the next time they check in for a flight,” A4A CEO Nicholas Calio said.

There’s no law that says you’re required to wear a mask on a plane

No federal law requires airline passengers to wear masks. Instead, airlines set their own rules, according to experts.

An airline can post warning signs and deny a passenger boarding or impose other penalties. As a legal basis for enforcing mask requirements, airlines cite Federal Aviation Administration regulations that say “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”

But the law has its limits.

“The crew can only invoke their authority when an unruly passenger presents a threat to the safe operation of the flight,” says David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a Fort Lauderdale private-jet charter company.

So are masks required by law? Strictly speaking, no.

“There is no statute, so the FAA technically can’t enforce wearing masks,” says Petro Kostiv, a Los Angeles lawyer and pilot. “However, airlines that require masks would more than likely win any lawsuit, because coronavirus, and how hard it has hit aviation, was not something the FAA was able to predict.”

The rules don’t apply to all passengers anyway

The rules, such as they are, don’t apply to all passengers. For example, Delta Air Lines’ list of exceptions includes:

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  • Passengers with a cognitive or physical disability that renders them unable to wear a mask safely.
  • Travelers for whom a mask would interfere with hearing aids or implants.
  • People who use self-contained oxygen.

Children under the age of 8 who can’t keep a mask on by themselves are exempt, too. What’s more, because of health privacy laws, Delta doesn’t require passengers to disclose their medical conditions.

Delta’s policy, outlined May 1 in an internal memo to its employees, also recognizes that there may be challenges to enforcing its mask policy.

“It will not be possible for everyone to wear a face covering at all times,” the airline notes. “You are not expected to police these specific situations on board, but rather to diffuse and de-escalate to the best of your ability, relying on your hospitality skills and training to achieve a positive outcome.” (Delta tightened its policy on June 22, saying customers are not allowed to board an aircraft without wearing a mask. But the exceptions remain in place.)

Flight attendants will need all the hospitality skills they can muster for what comes next. Now that many airlines have stopped blocking the middle seats to help passengers maintain social distancing, conflicts are inevitable. In mid-June, American Airlines banned a passenger who refused to wear a mask. A few days later, Frontier Airlines removed a passenger from a flight for the same reason.

More bans may be ahead

Expect more bans. At least that’s what you might conclude if you were a passenger on Judy Williams’ recent flight from Billings, Montana, to Seattle.

“The airline required masks,” says Williams, a lawyer who lives in Billings. “But as soon as people sat down, I’d estimate at least 50% took them off or pulled them down.”

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That’s what happened to me on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle a few weeks ago. My airline required masks, but on the 180-minute flight, many passengers peeled them off after the seat-belt light went dark. Shortly before landing, as the flight attendants came through the cabin, they hastily put their masks back on.

Some airlines are doing their best to prevent that scenario. Last week, Alaska Airlines announced it would start issuing “yellow cards” to passengers who unmasked themselves in flight. Alaska Air could ban you from future flights for failure to comply. Still, this policy-based and (ultimately unenforceable) approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 is minimally effective, industry observers say. But fixing it isn’t up to the airlines.

“The real problem is the lack of federal government mandates and guidelines for minimum standards for airlines and airports to implement,” says Eduardo Angeles, a former FAA associate administrator for airports who now works for the Los Angeles law firm Clark Hill. He says a piecemeal approach to mask requirements such as the ones now in place won’t work.

“But, more importantly, it will not regain the confidence of passengers to return to flying,” he adds.

Until then, you may not have to wear a mask on a plane. But you should.