“I felt extremely unsafe” reports JetStar passenger as airlines struggle with mask exemption laws

Portrait of a Latin American man traveling by plane wearing a facemask during the COVID-19 pandemic and looking at Rio through the window

A passenger on a JetStar flight from Wellington to Queenstown reported feeling unsafe as airlines struggle to enforce mask mandates in New Zealand.

The issue comes as passengers are not legally required to present an exemption card that would excuse them from wearing a mask.

The anonymous passenger was on a Sunday morning flight with her husband and reported to Stuff that about 70 per cent of those on the flight were not wearing masks.

The passenger told Stuff that when she and her husband took their seats they were surrounded by maskless passengers, claiming “it was a sea of unmasked people”.

She describes asking a woman in front of her if she and a boy next to her could put their masks on, explaining to the fellow passengers that she has a lung disease making the potential impacts of COVID quite severe.

However, she reports the woman laughed and said “no”.

The passenger goes on to say she asked a flight attendant if the staff could remove her and her husband’s luggage from the plane.

“I said I would have to get off the plane as I felt extremely unsafe.”

The flight attendant alerted the captain came to check if the couple was sure they wanted their bags unloaded. They then offered another solution; different seats in an empty row at the back of the plane, which the couple agreed to.

As the pair were escorted down the aisle, the passenger recalls many maskless passengers were “staring and sneering,” including one who asked her husband “have you got a problem?”

“I am not a nervous person, I am fairly confident, I am good in a crisis – but at the end of that walk I was shaking,” the passenger told Stuff .

She said she was grateful for the staff who let them disembark first through the back door when the flight landed, but claims she is “never flying with that airline again.”

According to Stuff , JetStar was unable to contact the crew to verify the details of the flight, but a spokesperson raised concerns regarding passengers not wearing masks.

The spokesperson said: “These concerns have been fed back to the New Zealand Government as part of their review into the mask exemption process across all industries.”

Another spokesperson from JetStar told Travel Weekly that “face masks are mandatory on all Jetstar flights and refusing to follow crew direction to wear them onboard is an offence (except where there is a medical exemption).

Our crew on board will always check whether our customers have an exemption.”

The current model for New Zealand mask laws was originally designed based on a “high trust model,” according to New Zealand ministry of health deputy director-general for strategy and policy, Maree Roberts.

Roberts said: “The Covid Protection Order reflects the policy intent that communities who may face certain challenges in life (e.g. disabilities) should not have to contend with additional barriers through the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Travel Weekly reached out to a representative from the New Zealand Government for their comments on the law and are waiting on a response.

When asked how the airline is enforcing mask mandates, Air New Zealand responded: “We find the majority of our customers to be supportive of the Government requirement to wear a face masks on board our flights.

“There are of course a small number of customers who have legitimate reasons to not wear a mask, such as medical or other reasons, and may have an exemption.

“Those who refuse to wear a mask, for reasons other than health or wellbeing, may not meet Air New Zealand’s conditions of carriage. To date only a handful of passengers have been offloaded for this.”

As Stuff reported, Covid-19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins, said officials from the New Zealand Government and disability groups have been working to make the mask exemption process stronger.

Hipkins said: “Unfortunately, some people are cheating the system, with little thought of others.

The rules seek to balance the needs of frontline staff, who are confronted every day by people who might not have true mask exemptions, with the rights of the disabled community and others who have legitimate reasons as to why the use of a mask is not possible.

“I understand officials will be going back to sector groups with proposals this week.”

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