Debate on face masks divides air-travel industry

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A debate over whether the federal government should mandate masks at airports and on commercial flights is dividing key industry players and pitting powerful lobbying groups against each other. 

Unions that represent flight attendants and pilots are joining forces with airports in calling for a nationwide rule requiring facial coverings for all passengers in terminals and on planes.

Major airlines, many of which have already imposed their own mask policies, say there’s no need for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to get involved, especially since there’s no comparable requirement for other businesses.

Most airports are allowed to set their own policies for masks, which often align with any local and state requirements. That’s led to a patchwork of rules.

The Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), an industry trade group, says it’s time for the government to step in.

“Not only will a federal requirement for face coverings serve to instill confidence in those who work or travel through America’s airports, but also ensure a consistent application throughout the aviation system,” Chris Bidwell, ACI-NA’s senior vice president of security, told The Hill. 

ACI-NA endorsed legislation introduced by House Democrats last week that would require masks in all airports and on all planes. A little more than a month ago, masks were required at 20 of the 30 largest airport hubs in the U.S. 

On the other side of the debate are major airlines, represented by Airlines for America (A4A). 

The group argues that the aviation industry has done more than other sectors to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. 

“Airlines continue to take this very seriously and are strictly enforcing their face-covering policies. The vast majority of passengers comply with the requirement, and carriers have determined appropriate consequences for passengers found in noncompliance,” A4A spokesperson told The Hill. 

Airlines that require masks have warned they will ban passengers who refused to comply. Delta CEO Ed Bastian recently said more than 100 passengers have been added to the airline’s no-fly list.

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday became the latest airline to tighten its mask requirement, saying that passengers who refuse to wear one will be asked to leave the plane or face a lifetime ban.

The mask debate comes at a time when the travel industry as a whole is struggling to stay afloat amid the coronavirus-driven recession. Air passenger travel, while up slightly in recent weeks, is still down significantly compared with this time last year.

The broader travel lobbying group, the U.S. Travel Association, has aligned itself with airlines.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, argued that government rules could lead to more confusion. 

“Though widespread mask-wearing is critical, blanket government mask mandates come with a host of questions about effectiveness and feasibility. Are travel workers expected to enforce them? Will they be penalized if they don’t, even if a customer becomes combative and disruptive?” she told The Hill. 

A lobbyist who works with the travel industry said airlines have a knee-jerk reaction to federal regulations. 

“Airlines are really wary of any increased regulatory burdens as a matter of principle, arguing the market rewards good behavior. The carriers have almost always fought consumer protections being legislated, but usually the unions are on the other side of them,” the lobbyist said.

Heather Gibson, a tourism professor at the University of Florida, said airlines would prefer to set their own policies instead of letting the government take on that role.

“They want to be able to change policies on their own when the time comes rather than having to wait for decisions from the feds to do so,” she said.

The FAA said it has provided guidance to airports and airlines for implementing COVID-19 safety measures, but it has not issued a mask mandate.

“The Department of Transportation and FAA have been clear that passengers should wear face coverings while traveling by air, for their own protection and the protection of those around them. We expect the traveling public to follow airline crew directions and policies, which are in place for passenger protection and the health of air crews,” an FAA spokesman said Wednesday. 

Jonathan Kletzel, an aviation expert at PWC, said there would be some advantages to airlines if there were a nationwide requirement to wear masks during air travel. 

“A federal mandate on masks may help the airlines do a better job of enforcing it because it would give their employees a stronger message to give. I don’t know if it necessarily impacts how customers think about it before they travel. Would it help? It likely wouldn’t hurt,” he said. 

Flight attendant and pilot unions that have endorsed legislation requiring masks on all planes say a federal mandate would carry a lot more weight than a company policy, particularly when trying to defuse tense situations with passengers. 

“Lawmakers want a federal mandate and so do flight attendants. Just like anyone smoking on a plane faces federal charges and fines, so too should people understand the serious consequences of putting the health of others at risk by refusing to wear a mask,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. 

The union represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines and has been calling for a federal mandate on masks before major U.S. airlines announced their policies in June.

Air Line Pilots Association International, a union that represents nearly 63,000 pilots at 35 U.S. and Canadian airlines, has also been urging Congress to make the FAA mandate face covers. 

“Without this requirement, rates of sickness will continue to rise. All crew members, flight attendants, gate and TSA agents, passengers, and pilots are in this together, and we’re counting on the FAA to join us,” the union said.


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