Airline and airport workers are praising a new rule that authorizes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to fine passengers who refuse to wear masks.
Labor unions and airport administrators for months have been calling on the federal government to impose nationwide health policies for air travel.
“Our union has been advocating for almost a year for a federal mask mandate in aviation. A federal mandate with public messaging and clear enforcement mechanisms for federal agencies like TSA will go far to keeping everyone safe,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 employees at 17 airlines, said in a statement Monday.
A spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union, which counts tens of thousands of airport workers among its members, called the mandate a “good first step,” while adding that workers need more help with training, staffing and personal protective equipment.
The TSA rule, which takes effect Tuesday and will remain active through May 11, stems from a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order that requires mask-wearing at transportation hubs.
An executive order from President Biden on his first full day in office directed federal agencies to “immediately take action” to mandate the use of masks in airports, on trains, on intercity bus services and on ferries.
The TSA can now require travelers to wear masks, deny entry or boarding to a passenger who refuses to wear one and hit passengers with a civil penalty if they refuse to comply.
When asked about what kind of fines might be imposed, a TSA spokesperson told The Hill, “The decision on penalty amounts is not final and the primary goal remains voluntary compliance.”
While many airlines have had company policies in place requiring masks for passengers, experts say the new rules mean employees can now point to the TSA policy instead of having to defend a corporate one.
“Those who are enforcing it, it will be easier for them to say it’s a federal mandate,” said Mahmood Khan, professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech University. “If they are challenged, they can say this is coming from TSA or Homeland Security, so they don’t have to justify. It will help them.”
Air travel, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, could see a boost with these new safety protocols.
Airlines for America (A4A), which represents major U.S. airlines, said in a statement Monday that it appreciates Biden’s decision to implement a face covering mandate and that “this measure will help strengthen our flight crews’ ability to enforce face covering requirements.”
The statement struck a decidedly different tone from over the summer, when the trade group declined to endorse a bill introduced by House Democrats that would require masks in all airports and on all planes.
The Airports Council International-North America, which advocates for airports, supported the measure, while A4A criticized it.
“While U.S. airlines strongly support and enforce mask requirements throughout the travel experience, we have real concerns about the number of mandates the bill seeks to impose on our businesses,” A4A said in a statement at the time.
“The reality is they never want the government to do things in respect to their business. They want to stay nimble, less regulatory,” Eduardo Angeles, managing director and senior counsel at the law firm Clark Hill, said in regard to airlines.
Major U.S. airlines have required masks on flights, often putting passengers on no-fly lists if they refuse to comply. Airports, however, were largely beholden to state and local regulations, preventing a nationwide standard.
Angeles stressed that TSA enforcement is a way to help airline and airport uniformity on regulation.
“The TSA coming out and saying we’re going to enforce this, being mandated by the federal government, is helpful,” said Angeles, who served at the Federal Aviation Administration under former President Obama. “Now to have basically the arm of the federal government for enforcement is a step in the right direction.”
The airline industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Airline travel is down significantly, prompting the federal government to provide financial assistance to the industry.
The TSA screened more than 859,000 people in airport checkpoints nationwide on Sunday, less than half of the nearly 1.95 passengers screened a year ago.
Experts say the mask mandate could help bolster customer confidence and help the industry as it recovers from the coronavirus recession.
“It will bring more confidence in the service providers,” Khan said. “When it comes from the government, it makes a difference.”
Angeles noted that mandating masks is a good way to bridge the gap until the “silver bullet” of widespread vaccine distribution.
“Mandating masks is going in the right direction. We’ve been talking about that since March 2020,” he said.