Alaska Airlines plans to give passengers yellow cards for refusing to wear masks as a coronavirus precaution

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Alaska Airlines is taking a page out of the soccer refereeing handbook in its bid to enforce in-flight mask-wearing rules amid complaints of passengers refusing to cover up.

Starting in early July, the airline will hand yellow cards to noncompliant passengers, advising them that it is their “final notice” and that a written post-flight report about them will be made. From there, if a passenger continues to refuse, it will be noted in the report and a decision could be made to ban the offending passenger from future flights.

“Overwhelmingly, those who fly with us understand and appreciate the importance of wearing masks and face coverings during this time of COVID-19,” a statement Tuesday on the airline’s blog said. “We also rely heavily on our guests to do the right thing for the greater good of everyone onboard our flights.

“Our flight crews encounter moments when some travelers disregard or disobey our mask requirement. It creates tension and anxiety for many of our passengers who do have their face coverings on. So, a change is needed.”

A Seattle Times story last Thursday quoted Alaska passengers complaining that the mask rule wasn’t being obeyed, or, in some cases, enforced. One passenger flying from Phoenix to Seattle said when the flight attendant in her first-class cabin did ask people to put their masks on, they ignored him.

Masks have become a highly politicized issue, and airlines nationwide have grappled with how to handle it and other complaints tied to social distancing. The Trump administration and federal regulators have left enforcement to individual airlines.

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Although all airlines except Allegiant were requiring masks — and even that airline will now mandate them starting July 2 — some were less aggressive than others about enforcement.

Industry trade group Airlines for America — comprising major U.S. carriers including Alaska, Delta, United and American — said in mid-June that tougher sanctions are coming but left it to individual carriers to figure out how to enforce compliance. Most have threatened future travel suspensions once a flight is over, but are limited in their ability to enforce rules once a plane has already taken off — ever-conscious about escalating an already intense situation and compromising passenger safety.

Alaska and its flight attendants’ union had explored ways to put more teeth behind mask warnings and devised the soccer approach.

Soccer referees issue yellow cards as a caution to players committing serious fouls — though not those dangerous enough to merit a “red card” ejection. But they write the player’s name in a notebook, and any additional yellow card warnings result in an automatic red card.

Alaska flight attendants won’t be “red carding” anyone — at least, not to their face while a flight is in progress, but the airline hopes the threat of a ban upon further review gets passengers covering up. As with most airlines, the mask policy won’t apply to those with a medical condition or disability making it difficult to breathe with or remove the mask, or to children aged 2 and under.

Starting Tuesday, the airline was to begin making passengers sign a health agreement during check-in in which they attest to their ability and willingness to wear a mask. “We take pride in our excellent customer service, a main reason so many of our guests enjoy flying with us. That stays the same,” Alaska president Ben Minicucci said in the airline’s blog post. “We’re counting on both our guests and employees to be considerate of one another to wear face coverings and contribute to our constant effort to keep everyone healthy and safe.”

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