TSA under pressure to extend mask mandate

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Airlines and unions are pressing the government to extend a mask mandate on airplanes and in airports that’s scheduled to expire on May 11, arguing the safety and health of both workers and passengers are at risk without it.

The federal rule, imposed in February, allows the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to fine passengers who refuse to wear a mask. Union leaders are cautioning that even with millions of Americans getting vaccinated and numerous states loosening their COVID-19 restrictions, strict rules need to stay in place for airplanes and airports.

“We’ve made tremendous efforts to get the pandemic under control, but we’re not quite there yet. That’s why we must continue the TSA enforcement directive for the CDC transportation mask mandate to keep passengers and aviation workers safe,” said Sara Nelson, international president of Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The mask mandate for air travel stemmed from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order that required masks at transportation hubs. President Biden signed an executive order on his first full day in office directing federal agencies to “immediately take action” to mandate the use of masks in airports, on trains, on intercity bus services and on ferries. 

Before February, flight attendants and other airline workers were responsible for enforcing company policies requiring masks for passengers. Travelers who refused to comply were often put on the airline’s no-fly list. Delta Air Lines, for example, has banned more than 1,200 passengers for noncompliance.

Unions are largely supportive of having federal agencies like TSA mandate passenger compliance, as opposed to airlines enforcing separate company policies.

“These efforts are helping to restore public confidence in air travel and crew members today are welcoming more and more passengers back aboard our planes. ALPA supports all efforts that promote a healthy flying environment to help protect crews and the traveling public,” the Air Line Pilots Association, International said in a statement to The Hill.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received about 1,300 reports of unruly passengers since February. About 260 of those cases have been identified as potential violations and of those 260 cases, FAA has initiated enforcement action in about 20 of them, according to the agency. 

Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last month that airline crew members experienced “a notable increase in the frequency and intensity of disruptive passenger incidents” starting in the middle of last year, with conditions worsening in 2021. Many of those incidents involved passengers not complying with the mask mandate, she said.

TSA told The Hill it does not have an announcement on whether the mandate will be extended.

Earlier this month, the CDC updated its travel guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel safely within the U.S.

The airline industry, which has seen its revenue plunge during the coronavirus pandemic, is also calling on the Biden administration to extend the mask rules.

“We encourage the administration to extend the federal face covering mandate, which has significantly strengthened our flight crews’ ability to enforce face covering requirements onboard commercial aircraft,” a spokesperson for Airlines for America, the trade group that represents major U.S. airlines, told The Hill. 

Proponents also argue that an extension is in the best interest of public safety, in addition to helping travel companies recover.

“We support the mask mandate extension, both because it gives the public confidence to travel and data shows the risk of transmission is very low when travelers are wearing masks. All of that is crucial for a sustainable reopening of the hardest-hit U.S. industry,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel Association executive vice president of public affairs and policy.

When the federal mask mandate was first introduced in February, TSA was screening about 859,000 people a day nationwide, compared with nearly 1.95 million daily passengers a year earlier, just before the pandemic hit.

More recently, about 1.5 million people were screened at U.S. airports on Thursday, almost 10 times the amount from a year earlier, when only 154,695 people were screened.

The debate over whether to extend the mandate comes as the U.S. has made great strides in its vaccination campaign. More than 100 million Americans have been vaccinated, and popular overseas destinations like the European Union are loosening their travel restrictions.

The CDC announced this week that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask outdoors when in small groups, even if the gathering is a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. For crowded situations like a mall or a house of worship, the CDC still recommends vaccinated people wear masks.

But the travel industry argues that easing outdoor mask mandates has nothing to do with the mask enforcement directive for air travel.

“Scientists have made clear that masks are the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and any variants when in enclosed spaces like the plane or the airport — regardless of vaccination. Mask compliance is key to confidence in air travel as we climb towards recovery, which includes international travel,” Nelson said.

Tags Airlines Coronavirus Delta Air Lines FAA Flight Attendants Joe Biden mask mandate Pandemic passengers Pilots Transportation Department TSA

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