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TSA Extends Airplane Mask Mandate

By Michelle Baran

Mar 10, 2022

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Are air travelers ready to rip off the masks or would they rather keep them on longer?

Photo by John Minchillo/AP

Are air travelers ready to rip off the masks or would they rather keep them on longer?

One week before the federally mandated mask requirement was set to expire, it’s been extended another month. But it looks like the rule could be relaxed or adjusted after that.

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The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Thursday announced that it has extended the federal transportation mask mandate one additional month to April 18—it was previously set to expire on March 18.

“During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” TSA said in a statement, hinting at the possibility that the mask restrictions will be eased or at least adjusted after April 18.

TSA said the revised framework will be based on COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science.

The update comes after the CDC in February relaxed its indoor mask guidance, which is now based on the severity of disease, hospitalizations, and hospital capacity—not just COVID case numbers—in any given community. Those factors determine whether counties are deemed to have a low, medium, or high “COVID-19 community level” and only when counties are at the high level does the CDC recommend that everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. The agency has released an interactive map that details the level of each county at any given time.

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Throughout the pandemic, the CDC has provided recommendations on mask wearing, but they are just that, recommendations—ultimately it has been up to individual states and jurisdictions to implement masking regulations as they see fit. But there is one area in which masking is required by federal law and that is with regards to travel and transportation.

The travel and transportation mask mandate dates back to January 2021, when the Biden administration and the CDC issued orders making it obligatory to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and other forms of public transportation as well as in airports and train and bus stations. (School buses and vans are exempt as of February 25.) U.S. airlines had already been requiring that passengers and crew wear masks since mid-2020.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a union that represents flight attendants who work at airlines that include United, Alaska, and Hawaiian, among others, said in a February 25 statement said that some of its members support the mask mandate remaining in place while others do not.

Their main concern, however, is that as long as the mask mandate is in place, flight attendants must enforce it and the AFA is asking that the traveling public focus on “backing up flight attendants simply doing our job.” Their plea comes at a time when air rage, often prompted by the federal masking policy, has been on the rise and can put flight attendants and crew in harm’s way.

In its latest report dated March 7, 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that airlines have already reported 814 incidents involving unruly passengers this year, and 535—or 65 percent—are related to face mask issues.

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In an effort to combat the problem, this past fall, the U.S. doubled the fine for people who violate the mask-wearing requirement on planes, trains, and other forms of public transit.

First-time offenders now face a potential fine of $500 to $1,000 and second-time offenders could pay $1,000 to $3,000; previously, the fines had started at $250 and went up to $1,500 for repeat offenders.

When the new fines went into place, President Joe Biden rebuked people who have been taking out their anger about the mask requirement on flight crews. “And by the way, show some respect,” Biden said. “The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly.”

The mask penalties are separate from any civil penalties the FAA can issue for unruly behavior—the FAA can now propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. (Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $25,000; one incident can result in multiple violations.)

As for international travel, President Biden has also made it a requirement that all international arrivals, vaccinated or not, be tested for COVID no more than one calendar day before flying to the United States. And all foreign nationals entering the U.S. must be vaccinated.

Last month, Airlines for America, the industry organization that represents the leading U.S. airlines, sent a letter to U.S. health officials asking them to drop the requirement for predeparture testing for vaccinated travelers entering the United States. The plea comes as numerous countries, including destinations throughout Europe, have begun dropping their COVID testing requirements.

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