United Airlines expands mask mandate to airports, tightens exemptions

CHICAGO, July 22 (Reuters) - United Airlines said on Wednesday it is extending face mask requirements to all of its airport areas across the world starting on July 24 and tightening exemptions to only cover children under the age of two.

Chicago-based United previously exempted passengers with certain medical conditions from face coverings, but now passengers will have to contact the airline or speak to a representative at the airport if they believe they qualify for an exemption.

While there is no U.S. government rule on face coverings during air travel, major carriers have said they will deny boarding to anyone not wearing one and ban passengers from future flights if they refuse to wear one during flight.

“The most important thing any of us can do to slow the spread of the coronavirus is to simply wear a mask when we’re around other people,” United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said in a statement.

The new requirement will apply to United’s customer service counters, kiosks, gates and baggage claim areas at more than 360 airports where it flies, as well as United club locations.

Airlines have said that hospital-grade air filtration systems on planes coupled with face masks make air travel safe, despite the coronavirus pandemic that has crushed demand.

In a shift of rhetoric, President Donald Trump encouraged Americans on Tuesday to wear a mask if they cannot maintain social distance from people around them.

Delta Air Lines also toughened its mask policy this week, saying any exemptions must be cleared by a doctor.

Despite touting the safety of air travel, Delta and United have both said they do not expect demand to return to pre-pandemic levels before a widely accepted treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. (Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)