‘We’re still in a crisis’: Flight attendants want federal mask mandate extended

Apr 23, 2021

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Wearing a mask has been part of the new normal of air travel during the pandemic. With the vaccination rollout continuing to pick up steam and many states beginning to ease COVID-19 restrictions and easing mask mandates, some people are wondering when the federal government may follow suit and pull back on its mask mandate on planes.

According to flight attendants, the answer to that question should be, “not anytime soon.”

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The head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which reps workers at airlines such as United, Alaska, Frontier and Spirit, said as much during a meeting Wednesday of a Senate subcommittee on aviation safety. “We are still in the middle of the crisis,” said Sara Nelson. “I do think it’s important that we recognize that and stay the course here with the mask policies, with all of our diligence (and) with the efforts to get the vaccine out to everyone.”

Airlines also support extending the mask mandate on airplanes. But for how long? Pandemic fatigue is a concern for health officials, as is hesitancy to get the COVID vaccine. During the Senate hearing, a health expert said the new coronavirus variant strains that have popped up have made it harder to determine when it will be safe to roll back mask mandates.

“So right now our recommendation from the science community is to continue wearing a mask,” said Dr. Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He added that while there is growing evidence that vaccinated people gathered outside have a very low risk of catching or transmitting the virus, there are conflicting reports on whether that applies in indoor settings like airports or planes.

U.S. airlines have required passengers to wear masks since shortly after the pandemic broke out in 2020, but were faced with a constant struggle around enforcement. Industry officials asked for a federal mask mandate to help the airlines enforce mask-wearing on flights, but those efforts failed until Joe Biden was elected to the White House. He signed an executive order requiring masks be worn on all flights shortly after taking office.

Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

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