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Unruly anti-mask passengers disrupt Japanese airlines

Voluntary measures leave carriers in bind, leading to calls to make them mandatory

As Japan started a four-day holiday weekend on Saturday, passengers wearing masks checked in at Tokyo's Haneda Airport.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Disgruntled passengers caused major delays on two recent domestic flights from Hokkaido over requests to wear face masks, underscoring the limits faced by Japanese carriers relying on voluntary measures to safeguard against the coronavirus.

A Peach Aviation flight scheduled to depart Kushiro for Osaka's Kansai International Airport on Sept. 7 was delayed when a male passenger refused to wear a mask, demanding that the matter be put in writing. The passenger continued to shout objections after the flight took off, leading the pilot to divert the plane to Niigata Airport to remove the man. The flight reached Osaka more than two hours late.

The departure of a Hokkaido Air System flight from Okushiri Airport was similarly delayed on Sept. 12 when a passenger was removed for refusing to wear a mask.

Many airline operators in the U.S. and Europe have made masks mandatory for passengers, but Japanese carriers have been limited to relying on voluntary cooperation.

"Considering masks are not required in other public spaces [in Japan,] it's not clear whether we can require them on planes," said an official at a major Japanese airline.

In the case of the Hokkaido flights, the passengers were removed for failing to provide adequate explanations for refusing the mask request and remaining confrontational, putting flight safety at risk.

"A safe environment is necessary for demand to recover," said aviation analyst Kotaro Toriumi. "A mandatory mask requirement should be considered, even if for a limited time."

An industry group representing the country's 19 airline operators on Friday issued guidance for passengers on its website following such incidents. In addition to calling for wearing masks in airports and on board, the Scheduled Airlines Association of Japan recommended that passengers who are unable to comply to contact staff.

"If the mask's material is the issue, we can prepare face shields or take other steps appropriate for the situation," said an association official.

The online guidance states that "boarding may be refused" for passengers who ignore or otherwise fail to follow the airline staff's instructions.

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