In our Ethical Traveler advice column, we tackle the tricky moral dilemmas and questions that arise when traveling during a pandemic.


Before the pandemic, I often befriended my plane seatmates. There was the fellow Filipino flying to Manila; we had drinks together during our layover in Hong Kong. There was the family on a flight from Barcelona; as I spoke, one of them said, “Are you May’s son?” She knew my late mother from high school, and had recognized me by the cadence of my speech and its similarity to May’s.

And one summer, leaving Paris, during boarding: “Do you think anyone will sit here?” I asked him, pointing at our empty middle seat. In his French lilt, he replied, smoothly, “Do you want to?” As in all things, it begins with a smile.

There’s something special about the relationship between plane seatmates. My theory: Should we ever crash in the ocean, in the mountains, or on a remote island that’s actually three white men’s vision of purgatory, we want an ally. We sign a contract when we board a plane. We trust, in a crisis, we will care for each other.

But as flights resume in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, some passengers have broken the rules of in-flight etiquette by refusing to wear a face mask on the plane, and risked spreading the virus to others on the plane. In September, a Delta flight returned to the gate and one passenger was kicked off for not wearing a mask. The same happened with two others on another Delta flight in July. The same happened with two others on another Delta flight in July. The passengers were put on Delta’s “no-fly list,” which now has at least 270 people who refused to wear masks. Many U.S. airlines are doing the same, banning a total of about 740 people (so far) for not complying with mask protocols.

“We have a policy that everyone must wear a mask when onboard our aircraft,” Cailee Olson, media relations manager at Alaska Airlines, told me in an email. “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.”

Wearing a mask reduces the amount of potentially contagious droplets and aerosols you breathe, speak, and sneeze into the air. Whether you’re healthy or asymptomatic, it’s a worthwhile precaution to protect those around you. Still, however carefully you plan—booking a flight with blocked middle seats, or even wearing a face shield in addition to your mask—you may end up flying with someone who disregards the safety of their neighbors. The real question: How do you ask your seatmate to put on their face mask on the plane?

“Smile with your eyes,” advises a flight attendant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, “and gesture to your own masked face.” They suggest behaving in good faith, as if the other passenger forgot to put on the mask currently under their chin, and mime covering your face or pulling up a scarf. If they don’t have their mask out, the flight attendant says, look at them and pat your cheeks, “like a fancy lady powdering her face.” Not only does nonverbal action prevent potential spread, but a subtle and silent interaction will hopefully make you or them feel less awkward about it.

If your seatmate still refuses to cover up, even after you’ve appealed to them, call a flight attendant to provide a mask or insist that they wear one. For example, on Alaska Airlines, Olson explained, “flight attendants are empowered to issue a final notice to any guest who repeatedly refuses to wear a mask or face covering on board our aircraft.”

Ultimately, flight attendants are backed by their company and a union; fighting one could land a passenger in jail or on the dreaded no-fly list. “Pointing people out to the FAs is perfectly reasonable,” says the flight attendant, acknowledging that it might seem embarrassing—but is likely a necessary ask.

That’s the strange thing about it—feeling like a snitch or a cop. As a non-confrontational Libra, I’d sooner get off the plane myself and catch the next flight than tell someone what to do. But we’re in a crisis. There is a social contract and we must take care of each other. By asking your plane seatmate to wear a mask, you’re looking out for their safety as well as yours.

Even if no one can see it under your mask: Begin, as in all things, with a smile.

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