US & World

No Mask, No Fly: Biden Signs Order Requiring Face Coverings On Planes

President Joe Biden holds a booklet as he speaks about the coronavirus in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday.
President Joe Biden holds a booklet as he speaks about the coronavirus in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday.
Alex Brandon/AP

Mask up or you won't be allowed to board a plane, train or bus. President Biden signed an executive order Thursday, requiring passengers to wear face coverings during interstate travel.

It's one of 10 executive orders signed by the president today aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans.

Airlines and their employees have been seeking such a federal mask mandate almost since the pandemic began, as they've struggled to deal with score of passengers who refuse to follow the airlines' own mask-wearing rules.

But the Trump administration had refused to enact such a mask mandate, as Trump himself and many in his administration often made a point of going mask-less. The former president hosted huge rallies with like-minded supporters, often mocking Biden and others who wore masks, in spite of overwhelming evidence that properly worn face covering significantly reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

As a result, fights between airline passengers over someone's refusal to wear a face mask have become all too familiar during the pandemic.

Videos like this one of a brawl between passengers on a Spirit Airlines flight that had just landed in Puerto Rico last October are all over social media, as some travelers decide that resisting wearing a mask on a plane has become a cause worth fighting.

"People coming on board don't find masks to be essential and they have challenged mask compliance across the board, partly because it has been made a political issue," says Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at United and several other airlines.

She says while some passengers refuse to wear masks even before boarding, many mask resisters take them off mid-flight to flaunt airlines' rules, and when asked to put their masks back on, Garland says the passengers often become verbally abusive and threaten flight attendants.

"And that is concerning when you're up in the air 30,000 ft or above and don't have all the tools (and support from law enforcement) that you typically do on the ground," Garland says.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has received more than 150 safety complaints over passengers violating airline mask requirements. And the airlines themselves have banned thousands of passengers from flying with them again for refusing to wear masks. Among them, Delta has prohibited more than 880 passengers, United has banned more than 600, and Alaska more than 300.

But despite such actions, many airline passengers continue to refuse to comply with the airlines' mask rules, which is why Garland says a federal mask mandate is needed for air travel.

"When the government establishes a requirement or a law, people listen," Garland says. "People will respond to the law, more so than a specific airline policy or a flight attendant asking."

She adds that federal penalties, including hefty fines of up to $35,000 or even jail time for passengers who assault other passengers or crew, carry much more weight than being banned from flying a certain airline.

"Knowing that we have the back up of the federal government is essential to ensuring strict mask compliance across the board," Garland says.

The mask mandate is also needed because masks are proven to be effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus, says Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, which has studied the risk of coronavirus transmission in air travel.

"Masks reduce the likelihood that someone will transmit the disease to someone else by anywhere from 40 to 60%. They reduce the likelihood that you will acquire the disease also by between 40 to 50%," depending on the type of mask used, viral loads, and other factors, says Marcus, who served as a transition advisor to Biden's coronavirus team.

The APHI's study found that universal mask use and physical distancing, combined with the HEPA air ventilation and filtration systems used on commercial jetliners today, which are comparable to those in hospital operating rooms, make the may reduce infection risk from respiratory particles on an airplane to less than 1%.

The mask is a critical layer of protection, Marcus says, and that's especially true the longer a person is trapped in a narrow metal tube for hours at a time, possibly sitting just inches away from a fellow passengers.

"If everyone is wearing a mask, the risks of transmission are greatly reduced. And there's been a good deal of study about that," says Marcus. "And that's particularly applicable on an aircraft because we're in close proximity to one another."

Wednesday, as one of his first acts in the Oval Office, Biden signed an executive order requiring every government employee and visitor on federal lands and federal building to wear a face mask. Thurday's order requires anyone traveling on a commercial airline, passenger train or intercity bus to wear a face covering, as well.

Asked about that mandate in his Senate confirmation hearing today, Biden's nominee to be Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, says it's needed to restore the confidence of the flying public.

"The idea of safety in air travel had one kind of meaning a year ago (and) it's taken on additional meaning now in the context of the pandemic," Buttigeig says. "It's one of the reasons why I think executive action on mask mandates is so important."

"We should do everything else that we can to make sure that passengers know that they can have a safe experience," added Buttigieg, noting that role of the federal government in protecting travelers "has taken on new meaning in the COVID era."

In addition to signing the mask-wearing mandate, the Biden Administration is requiring international travelers coming into the U.S. to prove they're tested negative for COVID-19 before they'll be allowed to board their flight. They'll also be asked to follow self quarantining guidelines upon arrival, too.

Airlines support the measures in hopes that it will make people feel safe enough to book a flight again, and hopefully spark something of a recovery in a business decimated by the pandemic.

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