The influential Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) has called for President Biden’s federal mask mandate that requires passengers over the age of two years old to mask up on planes and in airports to be extended until the end of September at the earliest. The union represents 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines including United, Alaska, Frontier and Spirit Airlines.
The controversial mask mandate – which mainly reinforces existing policies that had been implemented by many airlines and transport providers last May – is due to expire on May 11. The Biden administration is mulling an extension even as individual state’s drop their own mask mandates.
“We are still in the middle of the crisis,” Sara Nelson, the union’s president who has been dubbed ‘America’s most powerful flight attendant’ told the committee. “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,” she continued.
And while mask enforcement has sometimes been tricky, Nelson argues that, with time, passengers will get used to wearing masks for prolonged periods of time onboard planes and in airports – just like they’ve got used to a myriad of other changes to their flights.
“We know from experience that the flying public is ready to adapt to new behaviors when instructions are clear and rules are enforced,” Nelson said in written testimony. “Passengers learned to stop smoking, pack minimal fluids in their carry-ons, and turn off their cell phones for engine start and climb.”
“They can readily adjust to wearing a mask if federal agencies clearly and repeatedly define both the expectation and the penalties for non-compliance,” Nelson continued.
At the start of the pandemic, AFA lobbied airlines to introduce face mask rules at a time when some carriers refused to let their own staff wear masks for fear of looking unprofessional or scaring customers.
Now, the airline industry agrees that face mask rules are here to stay. Airlines for America, a trade group that represents American, Delta and United Airlines, as well as Alaska, Southwest, jetBlue and others, told the committee it supported a universal mask mandate.
In fact, the industry hopes its support for a mask mandate might convince the Biden administration to ease international travel restrictions – including the ban on non-Americans from Europe, the UK and Brazil.
“The data and science demonstrate that the right public health measures are now in place to effectively mitigate risk and allow for the safe removal of entry restrictions,” Airlines for America told the committee.
The organization has dismissed a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that suggested that blocking middle seats could reduce the risk of infection amongst plane passengers.
Where the industry and flight attendants don’t see head to head on, however, is the return of food and beverage service onboard flights. While the likes of American and Delta are slowly returning to a service that resembles something close to pre-pandemic levels, Nelson says onboard food and beverage service should be limited to essential items.
“As American’s, we are told to wear a mask in the grocery store and the doctor’s office, and if we were to remove our mask to eat a sandwich or sip a beverage in those environments, we’d be escorted off the premises”.
“Flight attendants work in one of the most densely-occupied spaces in the world with windows that don’t open, doors that aren’t available most of the time, and limited ventilation”.
And if passengers should be allowed to eat or drink, flight attendants want them to “dip and sip” non-alcoholic drinks only until the pandemic is over.
Photo Credit: Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock.com
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.