New Jersey man kicked off United flight for wearing scuba-style 'Narwall' mask
Everyone has seen the viral videos on social media. The ones with heated, sometimes violent, exchanges over wearing masks between customers and employees in stores, on planes and on public transit.
But you'd be hard-pressed to find an incident where someone was punished for wearing a mask.
Mahwah native Rob Joseph said that's what happened when he and his brother tried to board a United Airlines flight out of Newark Liberty International Airport wearing a Narwall mask — a full face shield that filters air in and out using a design inspired by scuba diving gear — they were told to replace the devices with cloth coverings or they wouldn't be allowed to fly. A United spokesman said it was out of compliance with their mask policy.
With more contagious variants of coronavirus spreading around the country and risk of contamination through the eyes, Joseph said he wanted a mask with above-average coverage to limit his exposure during his first flight since March so he could safely return to his wife and young children.
"Is it goofy? Absolutely. Is it something you want to be seen in public? Not exactly," said Joseph, who was traveling for work because his company is helping with security for the Super Bowl. "But to have that peace of mind for me and my family, I’m willing to take some stares to get down there safely."
Joseph and his brother planned to board an 11 a.m. flight to Florida on Jan. 23 when they were stopped multiple times by United employees and handed surgical masks to wear. The brothers attempted to explain their masks, handed the staff information cards about how the $85 face coverings worked, but eventually obliged the offering, strapping surgical masks over their masks' plastic exterior.
They walked down the jetway to the plane where they were stopped again, this time by a flight attendant. A similar situation unfolded, and they were told it was against company policy to wear the Narwall mask.
"I’m pleading my case with the masks," Joseph said, explaining there are no vents, instead it uses replaceable filters. He continued: "I’d really like to be able to wear my own mask for my own safety and the safety of everyone else on this plane."
The dispute ended with Joseph and his brother kicked off the flight for refusing to take off the Narwall mask. And now, the two were separated from their carry-on luggage that had to be checked because the flight was overbooked.
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"I pulled up (their policy) on my phone, and I went through it with her line by line" but to no avail, Joseph said, adding the mask was physically inspected by Transportation Security Administration agents, who signed off on it when going through security. The manager forwarded the complaint and information card to the corporate office's "de-escalation team," Joseph said, who reiterated the same policy and informed him he was not permanently banned from flying United.
The new CDC mask regulations that took effect Monday night say that masks that feature exhalation valves, which the Narwall appears to, are not acceptable. The rules also say that face shields cannot be worn in place of a cloth or disposable mask, only on top of them. The rules do not take into account face shields with integrated masks such as the Narwall.
The scuba-inspired mask
Enraged, but desperate, Joseph and his brother waited seven hours for the next United flight to Florida and doubled up on the cloth and surgical masks.
"It doesn’t meet the criteria image of the paper and cloth mask that everyone’s seen a million times," Joseph said, but "if I’m trying to exceed that for my own safety and my own comfort, to protect my newborn at home and my family that is at risk — that’s my right."
United spokesman Charles Hobart said the company's safety compliance group reviewed the product, though he would not say if they spoke with Narwall about the concerns or design.
"Along with the fact that it does have vents, there are some other variables at play here that we notice with the mask, there are needs to change out the filter, there’s concerns about hearing impairment with a mask like that," he said.
Alex Rattray, founder and creator of the Narwall Mask, said many of his customers have boarded flights wearing his mask design with no problem, but there have been some instances similar to the one described by Joseph.
"Narwall was specifically designed to filter all exhale, to have no vents, to have no direct exhaust valve, which of course would endanger the people around the wearer potentially," Rattray . "I had the idea to put a super high-grade filter to filter your exhale and your inhale to keep you and everyone safe."
After hearing stories from customers about issues on flights, Rattray said he has reached out to several airlines and "it's been very difficult to get a response." As for United, Rattray said, "I don’t believe we have been in direct contact."
Rattray's idea for the mask came about in April, he formed the Baltimore-based company in May and launched the product in November. His product, which uses filter material tested by biomedical lab company Nelson Labs, is being assessed by the Centers for Disease Control's National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory for its "particulate filter efficiency and pressure difference of innovative filtering facepiece respirators." The lab's assessment of these kinds of products has accelerated because of the pandemic, according to its website.
"People who buy Narwall tend to be much more vulnerable people, or live with someone who is vulnerable, or are visiting someone who is vulnerable," Rattray said. "You can imagine that when they’re told to take that off and wear a surgical mask that offers less protection to the wearer — that can be extremely distressing and a frightening situation."
Joseph said he inquired with other airlines about whether his mask would be an acceptable face covering and rebooked his return flight home.
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @colleenallreds