US Introduces Federal Airplane Mask Mandate: Why This Matters

Filed Under: Security/TSA

President Biden promised a federal mask mandate for both airplanes and airports, and that has now been implemented. Let’s talk about the details of this, and then I’ll share why I support this, even though on the surface this doesn’t change a whole lot.

Details of the mask mandate for airports & airlines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have issued an order mandating masks at airports and on planes. This new policy kicks in as of Monday, February 1, 2021.

There’s nothing here that’s terribly surprising, so let me just summarize a few of the highlights:

  • Passengers must wear a mask over their nose and mouth both on commercial flights and at airports
  • Airlines must use “best efforts” to ensure that people wear masks when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel; this includes providing plenty of notice, boarding only those who wear masks, and “at the earliest opportunity” disembarking any person who refuses to comply
  • The only exceptions are when eating, drinking, or taking medication, for brief periods, as well as when verifying one’s identity at a TSA checkpoint
  • This mandate doesn’t apply to children under the age of two, a person with a disability who can’t wear a mask (as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act), and a person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk of workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by relevant workplace safety guidelines

In reality all airlines and airports have already required wearing masks, so on the surface not much changes here. Perhaps the one practical implication is that this policy now applies to all children two years of age and older. Previously Delta made an exception for “young children” (over two years old) who cannot maintain a face covering, but that will no longer be possible.

There’s a new federal mask mandate for airports & airplanes

Why this federal mask mandate matters

On the surface this new federal mask mandate has limited implications. All airlines and airports already require passengers to wear masks, so why even bother with a mandate? Well, let me share why I think it’s important.

Airline employees have been put in a difficult spot during the pandemic. They’ve basically become the mask police, in addition to all the other duties they have to undertake. I don’t envy the positions gate agents, flights attendants, etc., are in.

We’ve seen thousands of passengers removed from flights over mask related issues, and gate agents and flight attendants have been the front line of defense here. Something as important as mask wearing shouldn’t come down to an airline policy.

When it comes down to it, the reason I think this move is important is because it hopefully makes it a bit easier for airline employees to perform their jobs. Rather than them being able to announce “American Airlines’ policy is that you must wear a face mask,” they can announce “federal regulations require you to wear a face mask.”

That carries a lot more weight than an airline-specific policy. Just as other safety related issued are federally regulated (from wearing a seatbelt to not storming the cockpit), the same should be true of wearing masks.

For anti-maskers, this is no longer a function of them arguing “well I saw evidence on Facebook and YouTube that masks don’t work, so I disagree with American’s policy and won’t wear a mask.” At this point airlines are simply enforcing federal policies, and that’s a good thing. If you have a problem, take it up with the federal government, and not with airlines.

A federal mandate should make enforcement a bit easier

Bottom line

The US is now mandating that face masks be worn at airports and on airplanes. While this seems redundant on the surface since airports and airlines already require people to wear masks, I still think this is an important step.

Frontline employees should have an easier time stressing the importance of something when they can attribute it to federal regulations, rather than to an airline policy. Just as wearing a seatbelt and not smoking on a plane is federally regulated, this should be as well.

What do you think — is this federal mask mandate totally useless, or does this give frontline employees a little more credibility when enforcing policies?

  1. #Lucky Question re: another recent Govt mandate:
    Just arrived back fm [DL Covid Testing Flight] fm FCO/IT. ATL/US Customs/Immigration/Global Entry agent told me they don’t need (to see) my Covid19 (-) test results upon entry bc I’m US Passport holder. I was told by final agent that collected my Global Entry sheet – that inbound testing is for foreign Passport holders only. Test is only mandated for airlines to police upon takeoff? News announcements explain new required CV test on inbound (to US) to be a requirement for ALL? Thoughts?

  2. @ Alliw — It absolutely is a requirement for all, and not just foreigners. However, I think the job of enforcing this is delegated to airlines, as they’re supposed to verify your test when you check-in. In theory there may be some spot checks on arrival, and airlines could be in big trouble if they’re found to have not properly checked test results. So I’m not surprised to hear airlines are responsible for checking this, and frankly I’m not sure that’s even necessarily a bad thing. Airline check-in agents do a good job with verifying travel documents, eligibility to enter a country, etc., so I can’t imagine this poses much of a risk.

  3. Biden’s original advice a decade ago was better. Stay off planes and trains. Seriously, a little piece of cloth has limitations. I’ve gone from the airport being my separate home to not flying in almost a year.

    The quality of most people’s masks are terrible. N95 masks are now the way to go. Ok, before hospitals, doctors and nurses needed them but the shortage is now over. Even the CDC head admitted those are best but were not required because she fears they are too uncomfortable to wear for hours and that people would start to take them off or poke a hole in them to allow easier breathing.

    I even don’t mind if people jump the line and get the vaccine. Elderly people stay at home. Middle aged people need to fly. Fliers should try their utmost to get the vaccine. There are ways.

  4. “We are in a national emergency. It’s time we start acting like it.”

    Whether you like it or not, Bubba.

    Thank you, can we please have some more of this grownup behavior?

  5. @derek the shortage isn’t over. I can’t get the N95 that best fits my face at the hospital, and the one I do have, that was intended for single use, is now reprocessed 5 times. I don’t get how an N95 for the general public that is reused many times and isn’t cleaned can be good.

  6. @Alliw as Americans know , it’s a foreign virus. Not. Airlines are not the police and it states in conditions of carriage they are not liable for documentation. Check in staff are now supposed to be experts in myriad of other documents required. That’s why it’s down to immigration and customs to check on arrival

  7. Seatbelt and smoking comparisons are pretty weak. People have to wear seatbelts, no exceptions. Can’t smoke, no exceptions. Masks, not so clear. The wingnuts are going to drive a truck through the medical exemption. Emotional support animals 2.0. When will US politicians drop the fetish for creating preferred classes? If this is truly a medical emergency, stop trying to avoid offending people and actually protect public health. No exceptions to the mandate. Emergencies do not call for balancing risks and harms. They call for reducing risk…Team Biden = Smoke and Mirrors

  8. This one time on January 6th when the “anti-maskers” took it up with the federal government, you weren’t all too happy about that either. So where do they go now?

  9. Flippantly saying you’re only going to find evidence showing the ineffectiveness of masks in stopping the spread of a virus on “facebook or youtube” is so disingenuous and betrays your political/liberal bias on this. There are plenty of legitimate scientific/medical studies you can find in reputable outlets showing this to be the case. Throw your politically biased epithet “anti-masker” around all you want, but your own side’s appointed all-knowing and all-wise “expert” on all things covid, the venerable Dr. Fauci, was literally a charter member of the “anti-masker” club literally telling us masks don’t work just last spring when this whole thing was blowing up for heaven’s sake! But that was last year’s “science”. But forget that was ever said. Move on. Just regurgitate the Left’s intolerant agenda and talking points CNN provides you with today and anyone who disagrees is a heretic and super dumb. lol/smh

  10. “ Frontline employees should have an easier time stressing the importance of something when they can attribute it to federal regulations, rather than to an airline policy.”

    This will change nothing in practice.

    Airline employees will still have to be the police. There won’t suddenly be federal marshals at every boarding gate.

  11. This new HHS order puts some teeth on the mask mandate to assist the flight crews with enforcement but the biggest weapon is the Ban for Life the airlines have to insure future compliance. Seems like the best deterrent.

  12. Thank God.

    And Brady, would love to know the “reputable studies” that show masks are ineffective. Geez you’re ignorant.

  13. @ Derek and Ben

    FAR more interesting than dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s about masks is the question of what will be done to accomodate those vaccinated. I am lucky (sheer luck…) to be one of them, or at least I shall be complete (2nd shot) in a week, and NOTHING anywhere in the world is prepared to facilitate their travelling, admission by airlines with less trouble, entry into individual countries or groups, etc… Aside from the vague “study” of a health passport somewhere near the Emirates, nothing is even announced.

    Don’t get me wrong: I shall continue to wear a mask, at the minimum as a courtesy to other people, but right now and since the vaccine roll-out and mass campaigns have been so botched, vaccinated people are exactly treated like all others. So for those who wish to travel, no incentive whatsoever to get vaccinated.

    You would think that in the perspective of “reopening the country (ies) and the economy(ies), this would copnstitute a priority. On the contrary, effective this Sunday, I cannot anymore (first time) enter the UE, even I am a UE (also US) citizen.

    Any opinion in this group or suggestion to get things moving?

  14. Don’t mess with Texas. Unconstitutional Federal legislation being passed by the Biden administration does not apply to us.

  15. @D3kingg – states have no regulatory power over airlines, this was settled during the adoption of the Airline Deregulation Act 1978.

    There may be a narrow argument over where exactly Federal authority applies in airports, but the courts have generally sided with the DOT over this, so it’ll likely apply throughout the airport, not just in the sterile area. If nothing else, the Feds will argue authority under the “promote the general welfare” phrase in the Preamble and it’ll get tied up in court until the pandemic is over.

    Short answer – Texas can go pound sand.

  16. The order attempts to apply to other forms of transportation too… this could definitely lead to a lawsuit, especially with a conservative-majority SCOTUS.

  17. I expect this to lead much less mask wearing. Making something federal policy doesn’t make everyone suddenly follow it; ask the 90% of customers who refuse to observe the seatbelt sign. Exempting anyone with a disability, real or faked, will just lead to half the people on the plane not wearing a mask. However, if it’s a federal law, let the federal government enforce it – I’m done.

  18. “Brady”, Latin for “slow”. A fitting name.

    I guess the fact that every single health facility in the US requires masks must mean they’re all ignoring your “legitimate studies” in “legitimate outlets”

    Thankfully the CDC isn’t obligated to listen to the opinion of ignorant degenerates.

  19. Along the lines of what Joe mentioned, I don’t know the science for the minimum age requirement for mask use on airplane (2 year olds) but that seems difficult for parents to manage whether at home or in public much less an airplane. That is a no win scenario for all. Travel delays/emotional trauma for families and bad publicity for airlines

  20. @Syd Sometimes you are simply on the losing side of an argument. The answer to your question “then where do you go” is to visit a psychologist. It’s not go storm a federal building and kill cops

  21. D3kingg …. and this is why Americans are dropping like flies… have at it, especially in the southern tier…. good riddance.

  22. Dumb policy. CDC has no police powers. However all folks should do their best to wear masks and help the fears of others.

  23. @Pierre, count your blessings and don’t demand anything. You are already fortunate to have your life saved by getting the vaccine.

    I was once in a flood and nothing was done. I was left to fend for myself, no government aid and clean up effort. So with this Covid-19, I did fend for myself as much as possible. I got the 2 doses of vaccine by exploiting an error, how is not important. I expect no special treatment such as travel but am grateful that I got the shots. I still wear N95 masks or surgical masks, depending on the situation.

  24. Why now? Masks have been required by airlines for at least 8 months and now as the virus is disappearing, and we are in the midst of another flu season..what is the point.

  25. Pierre, why’s should you behave any differently or be treated any differently just because you have be vaccinated, you can still catch the virus and you can still spread the virus, or at least should be treated as such until proven otherwise. There is very little evidence so far than vaccinated people are transmitting the virus any less than other. I sincerely hope we soon get a body of evidence that shows this to be the case but until such time we have to treat the vaccinated the same as everyone else. The best option is for everyone to stay home.

  26. While everyone arguing efficacy of masks, completely overlooked the allowing people to NOT wear them by claiming an ADA exemption. Now everyone and his brother are going to claim an out.

    Travel just got LESS safe than more.

    And the workplace safety rules exemption, what the heck does THAT mean?

  27. [Otherwise reasonable comment removed by Editors due to author’s juvenile insistence on using racial slurs to argue their point.]

  28. I agree. This federal mandate will hopefully discourage people from trying to browbeat FAs into allowing them to not wear masks.

  29. @FNTYes that’s right they are going to make people wear masks for the rest of their lives. What a moronic thing to suggest, but not surprising when you couch questions like that with casual racism.

  30. “While everyone arguing efficacy of masks, completely overlooked the allowing people to NOT wear them by claiming an ADA exemption. Now everyone and his brother are going to claim an out.” If someone can’t wear a mask because of their condition then I am hard pressed to understand how they can risk non-essential travel given their medical predicament.

  31. @ Derek,

    I am sorry Derek, but this goes far beyond individual people. What’s really dying are whole countries, economies and communities held together by how people earn a living. The main duty for all, I believe, is to RESTART the economies, otherwise those people saved by the vaccine will eventually die of starvation.

    WHO (no pun intended) / WHAT is responsible for the present state of things has not even been considered, far less discussed and acted upon. It WILL have to come. You seriously don’t expect band-aid bonanzas of 600, 1400 or 2000 dollars to remain handed out on a long term basis, do you? And what about the coiuntries (most, actually) which cannot afford it?

    The vaccine was (is?) created to restore some normalcy in our lives, starting of course with those vaccinated. Maybe because of the complete botch-up of the supply and delivery, this has moved to backstage It still is a matter of life and death, though.

  32. @ Ed,

    I respectfully disagree and I find myself in a strange position: I willingly admit that I disbelieve the absolute forced deadliness of this virus on 99% of the population, but at the same time, I practice all the safety measures recommended, masks, distancing, hands scrubbing, etc…

    Still, the fact about hundreds of people, some “at risk”, around me, with the tragic exception of one death at the onset (very sick friend from way before) has been that nobody got seriously sick, adhering to regular intakes of Zinc, vitamins C & D.

    The most terrifying danger now is not the death of x more individuals , tragic as it may be, but the death of entire countries, economies and activities. WHY? Because they imply not the death of a finite number of people but the disappearance of whole populations having become impeded from sustaining themselves.

    We need to race back to some normalcy in openings, trade, work economic activity etc…. And the OBVIOUS solution to this is to relax restrictions for people vaccinated. I am not saying it because I would enjoy flying again, but you must begin somewhere and the line of least danger (even if not 0%), is that of vaccinated people.

  33. Agree 100% with FNT Delta Diamond – what are the metrics for removing the mask mandate?

    As a physician I am more than frustrated. There was never any suggestion of reducing the number of people that got the virus – simply the intent was preventing everyone infected at the same time and overwhelming the healthcare system. There are no metrics available for removing any restrictions just politicians and Fauci adding more crazy things – he had 40 years to solve AIDS – he accomplished nothing – almost 1 million people died last year from AIDS – that was Fauci first attempt to control a disease – he continues to fail daily.

    Now it has become zero tolerance for any infections which is massively unrealistic.

    This has to stop and if you feel you are at risk stay home, if you want to wear a mask – wear it – otherwise let the world return to normal – no masks no rules. The healthcare system is not going to be overwhelmed – it has run at 98-99% capacity daily for years.

  34. Patti
    I agree. I think alot of people are gonna claim ADA exemption. It’s been a topic of debate where I work and I imagine HR will get involved. I won’t say where I work but I work for a car rental company on airport grounds renting 1000 cars a day! So let that sink in. Most people are traveling with others so in theory I have at least 2000 people come in front of our rental counter daily in Florida especially in January. My question is whether I can refuse service to someone not wearing a mask. I have to wear mine for 10 hours a day. I’ve heard it all. The most common it infringes on my civil liberties or simply I’m not wearing a mask out of fear. If years later we found that they worked than great if not no harm no foul. I don’t see what the fuss is.

  35. For those asking about mask studies here’s one from Denmark:

    I’m not an anti-masker but I would like to see more studies. As an example is a KN95/N95 substantially better than a cloth mask at preventing spread? Not a lab test but a real world test. And if so the govt should issue everyone a supply. The govt likes to say wear a mask but really how useful is that cloth mask someone just pulled out of their back pocket?

  36. So, now that it is a federal requirement, what are the consequences for those that disobey? Airlines shall now have enforcement easier because then the police (e.g. government) can implement the related consequences. AND it doesn’t ruin it for those of us who follow the procedures.

  37. @Syd, if you are going to direct comments to me, please try to at least write them intelligible English. I really don’t see the point of writing — literally — gibberish and expecting anyone to understand your point of view, let alone have any respect for you.

  38. @DH, I share your frustration, but coming from a different background. During my time in the military I had extensive training in how to operate in an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) environment. From this training, I have to point out that not just having the proper equipment, but also adhering to proper process is absolutely critical to avoid or minimize the impact of the threat. Also operating indefinitely in an NBC environment is not something that is possible or desired. The NBC gear is simply designed to allow the soldier to complete the mission AND THEN GET THE HELL OUT OF THE CONTAMINATED AREA! Once arriving at a non-contaminated area, there is a complex process on how to transition to a clean area without contaminating it as well. And frankly, given enough soldiers going through this transition process, there would still invariably be at least some cross contamination. Regardless what people think about the effectiveness of masks, when I see people improperly wearing masks, constantly touching them and their face, wearing masks too long, taking them on and off, not replacing them once worn or contaminated, not properly cleaning hands/face/steering wheel, door handles/knobs when returning from shopping, etc. – we have to be honest with each other that masks CANNOT be effective due to people’s improper use and wearing of masks. Frankly, you would never be able to train the general population to follow proper process either. This virus is not going away so we have to get back to living again.

  39. I’m ok with a federal mask mandate for airports and air travel but what I absolutely in no uncertain terms DISAGREE with is the retirement that children age two are not exempt under this policy. This is ridiculous. In Europe the age is over 5, based on the WHO’s recommendations that children 5 and under not wear masks. Some European countries have even set the required age to 12 and over. Here we are in what is supposed to be a free country and yet we have gone off the rails in terms of the rules and requirements American society has placed on parents and outrageous and illogical expectations of young children. No one in their right mind believes it makes sense to force a two year old that is not yet capable of speaking or reasoning to wear a mask. Yes, some parents can get their two year old to wear a mask but many others cannot, despite months of practice and attempted training. This federal mandate is an unfair punishment of families with young children. Federal mask mandate? Fine, but set the minimum age to 6 or really even anything higher than two would at least be an improvement.

  40. The mandate is pretty worthless. Most masks don’t fit well, and the standards are arbitrary. I teach high school, ask me how I know… A cousin of mine is involved with Covid vaccine production. He tried wearing a mask certified by the British NHS, the US CDC, and local health agencies aboard an American Airlines plane. Yes, certified as safe aboard planes by the CDC… They told him to take it off and replace it with a flimsy cloth mask or he couldn’t fly. The level of education and standardization amongst airline employees is pretty poor. I don’t blame them, actually, as its an issue of training, but it does exist. Also, given the standards of cleaning that airlines are now applying to their planes the chances of getting Covid onboard an airliner are becoming lower and lower. You’ve got a better chance of being exposed to Covid in the TSA line, for example, then aboard a cleaned and sanitized jetliner equipped with HEPA filters, so why where masks aboard the plane?

    I’m not a paranoid anti-masker, so let’s not get political – a lot of people like doing that, equating not being pro-mask as being a crazy anti-mask type. I just don’t think that the science nor the practicalities argue in favor of an airplane mask mandate. Dr. Fauci himself has changed his mind several times on the subject, so why do down this road when the chief scientist keeps hedging back and forth? There’s also the issue that a lot of folks won’t fly – especially long haul – if they have to wear a mask for 5, 6, 7 hours or more due to the comfort issue. That’s costing airlines money, and I suspect they’ll start lobbying for this mandate to end as soon as possible, especially as the vaccine rollout continues.

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