United Airlines employees sue to block vaccine mandate
Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine
Only two people have agreed to pay fines to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) among more than 2,400 incidents of noncompliance since a federal mask mandate took effect this year, according to new data provided to The Hill.
TSA said it has received referrals concerning 2,413 incidents of possible noncompliance and has completed investigations into 1,793 incidents.
The agency issued more than 1,690 warning notices and referred 38 matters for civil penalties. Only two individuals did not challenge their fines of $250 each, TSA said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The eye-opening figures come amid an uproar over the federal mask mandate for transportation that has been linked to numerous reports of scuffles and obnoxious behavior by airplane passengers.
"One explanation could be that the people who already violated it to start with are people who feel very strongly to begin with and don't think the federal government could even mandate something like that. They do it partially as a protest, so it's not surprising they haven't paid the fine," said Retsef Levi, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management specializing in risk management and analytics.
Such incidents could very well persist as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health officials say masks are increasingly needed again, even for those who are fully vaccinated.
"It's perhaps not surprising that the people who are most adamant about not wearing a mask are also the most adamant about not paying a fine and feeling their personal liberties are infringed upon," said Gretchen Chapman, a professor in social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which proposes fines against passengers for behavior on aircrafts, said that it takes "significant time" to settle cases against unruly passengers but that passengers who face fines have the right to due process.
"Developing a case that we believe will hold up in court takes a considerable amount of work from our safety inspectors and attorneys, and they currently are working a record number of cases," an FAA spokesperson said.
The FAA has received more than 3,600 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including 2,666 reports of passengers refusing to comply with federal mask mandates. It has identified potential violations in 610 cases and has initiated enforcement action in 95 cases.
Fines can range from $250 to $52,500. Earlier this month, the FAA said it had issued a $10,500 fine to a passenger who refused to wear a mask during a February flight.
TSA's authorization to fine passengers who fail to comply with mask requirements on public transportation systems stems from an executive order signed by President Biden on his first day in office. TSA has since extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire in May, to September.
When mask mandates for vaccinated people indoors were lifted, it remained in place for people traveling on public transportation: on airplanes, buses and trains.
The CDC on Tuesday revised its mask recommendations to say fully vaccinated people should wear masks in indoor settings in areas of the country with "substantial" or "high" levels of transmission, which includes much of the South and West.
Meanwhile, Republicans have pressured the Biden administration to end the federal mask mandate for public transportation.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earlier this month introduced legislation that would prohibit the federal government from imposing a mask mandate when using any "conveyance" or "transportation hub."
"Right now, the CDC is doubling down on indoor mask guidance. The last thing that we need is any masking to be lifted. It would be a major mistake while delta is surging and infections are skyrocketing again to lift any restrictions. In fact, we should be implementing more," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, referring to the new delta variant of COVID-19.
A group of GOP senators led by Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) introduced a resolution in June calling on the CDC to lift the public transportation mask mandate. That effort came before the July surge in cases.
"The problem right now is the unvaccinated are making it much harder for the rest of us. If the requirement is lifted, it would take us back to an honor system, which we have already seen that does not work," Wen added.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said she doesn't want to get ahead of any guidance by the CDC when asked if air travelers who have been required to wear a mask should anticipate the mandate will likely stay in place.
There was a surge in aggressive and violent behavior at airports and on flights this month, with the FAA recording nearly 100 cases of unruly passengers in just one week. In one instance, an American Airlines flight was delayed for a day after a passenger wouldn't comply with the mask mandate and became disruptive.
In May, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant lost two teeth when she was punched by a passenger over a disagreement about the mask policy. Spirit Airlines in April removed all passengers from a flight when a maskless family got in an argument with a flight attendant over the mandate.
Chapman, of Carnegie Mellon, suggested other ways for TSA to collect fines, like a disclaimer when a traveler purchases a ticket that their credit card could be charged if they do not comply with mask mandates or charging ticket purchasers an extra $50 that is removed if you comply with mandates.
"They don't want to collect people's money, they want people to wear masks. But those two things are linked. There's no sense in having a rule that you have to do this and if you don't do it, you have to pay a fine, and no one actually pays the fine," she said.