Airline unions: Government is failing flyers by failing to implement coronavirus rules

Jun 14, 2020

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Months into the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, flying looks much different around the world than it did at the start of the year.

Demand for travel remains way down while airlines and airports across the country have implemented various rules, guidelines and health screenings, all aimed at curtailing the spread of COVID-19 among travelers.

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Unions representing many U.S. airline employees and others in the travel industry say the current hodgepodge of guidance isn’t nearly enough. The problem, according to a number of labor officials, is that Washington has left it to individual companies and local regulators to come up with their own public health rules. The result has been a collage of measures that differ from airline to airline and location to location. That, the labor leaders say, sows confusion among travelers and makes enforcement difficult for individual airlines and airports.

“Most definitely masks should be put in place. It should not be an option, it should be law,” said Danny Rivers-Mitchell, founder of Black Girls Travel Too, a company dedicated to helping women of color have new travel experiences.

“When there’s no consistency across the board, no one will want to follow suit,” she added. “People can become extremely angry, it can turn into some volatile situations with passengers.”

Related: Airlines add new rules as call for masks on planes gets louder.

Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association that represents pilots at American Airlines, agreed that inconsistent polices — and similarly inconsistent enforcement of the ones that are in place — can lead tensions onboard to boil over. That’s especially true for passengers who are already generally anxious about COVID-19, he said.

Tajer added that while American does have a policy that requires passengers to wear masks while onboard, as a captain, there isn’t much he or his flight attendants can do to make people comply if they don’t want to.

“We don’t have anything to say ‘it’s a mandate, it’s a federal mandate, you have to wear this mask,'” he said. Without the force of law behind them, airline policies can be somewhat neutered, Tajer said, possibly undermining passenger confidence in the guidelines on top of it all.

Unlike a store, which can ask an unmasked customer to shop somewhere else, Tajer said his options to respond are extremely limited.

Guide: What it’s like flying in the U.S. right now.

“I can’t ask you to leave my airplane at 35,000 feet,” he said.

The Association of Flight Attendants has also called on the Transportation and Health and Human Services departments to implement uniform rules that would apply to all forms of transportation.

In letters to the heads of both agencies, the AFA advocated federal mask requirements on airplanes, among other measures.

Read more: How far can airborne COVID germs really spread on a plane?

“Clearly, regulatory measures to require the use of masks on aircraft, provision of appropriate PPE, and restrictions on leisure travel, will reduce the risk of adverse health effects during the COVID-19 emergency,” one of the AFA letters said.

Susannah Carr, an AFA member who is a flight attendant with United, also testified before congress on June 9, advocating for similar measures.

So far, however, the Trump administration has resisted those calls.

Related: Denied boarding after a temperature check? Here are your rights.

In an interview with Politico on June 3, DOT secretary Elaine Chao said she thinks the current system, which has individual companies deciding on their own policies, is better for everyone.

“When the federal government gets involved we tend to be much more heavy-handed. We tend to be inflexible, and once we put a rule in place, it takes a long time to remove that rule if the conditions change,” Chao said.

SAN DIEGO, CA-MAY20: Passengers board an American Airlines flight to Charlotte, North Carolina at San Diego International Airport on May 20, 2020 in San Diego, California. Air travel is down as estimated 94 percent due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, causing U.S. airlines to take a major financial hit with losses of $350 million to $400 million a day as nearly half of major carriers' planes sit idle. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Danny Rivers-Mitchell, the founder of Black Girls Travel Too, said masks should be legally mandated for all travelers (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The unions, however, see Chao’s position as an abrogation of the department’s duty.

Tajer said that by not implementing a rule in this situation, the DOT has washed its hands of the responsibility to look out for passenger safety. He said there are plenty of other regulations on the books that may represent a minor inconvenience for passengers, but are still in everyone’s best interest.

“The airplane flies just great without anyone wearing a seat belt, but we have a mandate for it,” he said.

Related: DOT again rebukes airlines over refunds amid ‘unprecedented’ spike in complaints.

The DOT did not directly respond to a request for comment on its position, but the Federal Aviation Administration did provide a statement on the larger department’s behalf.

“Although the FAA’s statutory authority is to regulate the safe operation of civil aircraft, we are lending aviation expertise to federal public health agencies and airlines as they issue guidance for crew members, including health monitoring, screening protocols and aircraft cleaning,” the statement said. “In addition to the near-term measures already underway, the agency participates in regular discussions among government and industry leaders about a variety of longer-term solutions.”

Related: 3 ways the TSA experience will be different next time you fly.

On Friday, the DOT also announced it would distribute about 100 million cloth masks to transportation companies and facilities for passenger use, but noted those masks are meant only to be “supplemental.” In a press release, the agency said “passengers are still responsible for having their own facial covering per existing guidance from airlines, airports, transit agencies, and passenger rail authorities.”

Meanwhile, the calls for federal mask requirement continue to mount.

“It’s simply a no-brainer,” Rivers-Mitchell said.

“As an avid traveler, I would welcome that,” she added. “It would make us feel a little bit more comfortable about traveling.”

Featured photo by ELEONORE SENS/AFP via Getty Images.

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