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Airports beg government to set face mask policy for passengers

Airports beg government to set face mask policy for passengers
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Airline passengers are encountering a patchwork of rules when it comes to wearing masks on planes and in airports, creating confusion and frustration among customers and companies alike.

With no federal law for wearing masks on planes or in airports, airlines are setting their own policies. Some have removed noncompliant passengers and banned them from future flights, as was the case earlier this week when American Airlines removed a pro-Trump activist. 

Airports across the country, meanwhile, have inconsistent standards for facial coverings, prompting the airline industry to beg government officials to establish national guidelines for air travel. Most airports are allowed to set their own policies for masks.

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“I can’t emphasize that enough — we would welcome regulations on a temporary basis that you should wear a mask in an airport when you’re transferring through it,” Airports Council International – North America President Kevin M. Burke said this past week.

“If in fact you have to wear it on an airplane, you should be wearing it during your trip through the airport,” he added. “You can infect as many people without a mask going through an airport as you would getting on an airplane.”

Burke, whose group represents commercial airports, testified at a hearing Thursday hosted by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security and told The Hill afterward that federal guidelines would “help to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and re-instill confidence of those who work in or travel through America’s airports.”

The Transportation Security Administration does not require passengers wear masks when they pass through checkpoints. But the agency announced on May 7 it would require employees to wear face masks while performing screening operations.

Airports' rules vary when it comes to masks for travelers. Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport have required passengers and visitors to wear face masks since May, whereas nearby Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport recommends face masks but does not require them.

Denver International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport also require passengers and visitors to wear masks. The international airport in Orlando this week began requiring airport employees to wear masks but did not extend the policy to travelers.

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Meanwhile, major U.S. airlines represented by Airlines for America (A4A) said this past week that customers could be put on a carrier’s do-not-fly list if they refuse to wear a face mask on flights that require them.

Airlines reserving that right include JetBlue, American and Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Pro-Trump activist Brandon Straka made headlines this past week for refusing to wear a mask on an American Airlines flight. He was removed from the plane, which was headed to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport from New York's LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday morning. 

“A4A member carriers will be vigorously enforcing face covering policies, putting rigor around rules requiring passengers and customer-facing employees to wear facial coverings over their nose and mouth,” an A4A spokesperson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends ensuring an adequate supply of personal protective equipment is available during flights. The agency also notes that airline staff tending to a sick passenger should wear a face mask.

The CDC advises using simple cloth face coverings in any public setting where social distancing is difficult.

The recent policies imposed by airlines and any subsequent federal rules for airports are likely to add fuel to the political fire surrounding masks.

Wearing facial coverings has quickly become a political issue as coronavirus cases have increased in parts of the country where more states are opening up and more people resume travel. 

Texas, for instance, has seen an increase in cases recently but Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has not required mask-wearing. None of the state’s major airports — Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport — require masks for customers.

Similarly, Florida has also seen an increase in cases, but Miami International Airport only urges passengers to wear face masks and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority stresses hand-washing and using hand sanitation stations.

Members of Congress have been told by the House physician that they are at a high risk for contracting coronavirus while on an airplane or in an airport.

The public health dangers for all passengers are likely to increase, Burke said, as the economy improves and more people start flying. 

“Six-foot separation as people come back to the airports is going to be very, very difficult to keep and also to enforce. People will be bumping into each other,” he said. “So, for them to remain safe, wearing masks is important.”