Flying is rife with uncertainty after a federal judge threw out a federal mask mandate for airline passengers, only to have the federal government decide to appeal the ruling.
Hesitant fliers seeking to cancel travel plans and get a refund won't get much more clarity.
If flying without a mask mandate makes you nervous, some airlines will offer you a refund. Others won't give you a break unless you have a refundable ticket, and some carriers say they will deal with refund demands on a case-by-case basis.
The federal mask mandate that was adopted last year was set to expire May 3. But when a federal judge in Florida voided the rule Monday, many airlines, airports and car-hailing services such as Uber quickly lifted the mask regulation, making mask-wearing optional.
United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby told the "Today" show Thursday that his carrier would be flexible with passengers who refuse to fly and demand a refund on a non-refundable ticket.
"For customers like that, that are immunocompromised or that have other concerns or issues, we are working with those customers if they don't want to fly," he said.
United Airlines spokesperson Josh Freed clarified in an email that passengers who have "special circumstances" should call the customer service phone number. "We'll work with them to find the best solution for them," Freed said.
American Airlines offers refunds to some mileage reward club members and travelers who purchase refundable tickets. But fliers who book the cheapest seats — basic economy — won't get a refund simply because they don't feel comfortable sitting next to an unmasked seatmate.
An Alaska Airlines spokesperson said the Seattle carrier will "work with guests on a case-by-case basis if they're not comfortable flying."
At Southwest Airlines, the refund policy has not changed: Passengers can cancel flights even with nonrefundable tickets and use the value of those tickets toward the purchase of future flights without paying fees.
A Delta Air Lines representative could not be reached for comment.
On Twitter, the nation's biggest carriers were slammed with questions from passengers who said flying without a mask mandate is too risky.
"If airlines want to drop mask mandates they need to provide refunds to people who no longer feel safe flying due to the masking requirements being removed," one Twitter follower wrote.
Soon after the start of the pandemic in 2020, most of the nation's biggest airlines required passengers to wear masks, but the policy was not a federal mandate until 2021, when the Biden administration imposed fines of as much as $1,000 for the first offense and as much as $3,000 for repeat offenses on planes, buses and other forms of public transportation. The new policy was supported by the nation's airlines, including unions that represent flight attendants.
With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the decline in the last few months, the nation's largest airlines reversed course, urging the Biden administration to drop the mask mandate and eliminate other pandemic health protocols for international travelers.
The mask mandate was upended Monday when a federal judge in Florida, an appointee of President Donald Trump, voided the requirement, saying the rule exceeds the authority of U.S. health officials in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation got messier Wednesday when the Justice Department announced it was appealing the judge's decision at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said in a statement that it is the agency's "continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health."
Travel experts suggest those who don't want to fly now call their carrier to at least request travel credit toward future flights.
"These folks have a legitimate point of view," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "They can call their airlines and talk to an agent, explain why they cannot travel and see whether the agent will provide a refund."