The airline industry has welcomed a new four-month extension of the U.S. federal face mask mandate as the delta variant spreads across the country. Late on Tuesday, the Biden administration confirmed it would extend the mask mandate to January 18, 2021, at the earliest citing the current threat posed by the highly infectious variant.
The mandate, which has been in force since January and has already been extended once before, had been due to expire on September 13 but the decision to extend the mandate again was highly anticipated and didn’t take the industry by surprise.
Confirming the extension, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) simply noted: “The purpose of TSA’s mask directive is to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.” The TSA is responsible for implementing and enforcing the mandate.
Reacting to the news, U.S. Travel Association executive vice president of public affairs Tori Emerson Barnes said the extension “made sense for the current health environment and has the industry’s full support”.
Barnes noted that the universal wearing of masks had the dual purpose as both an “effective safeguard against spreading the virus and boosts public confidence in traveling”.
The mandate applies to anyone aged two and over, although there are some limited exceptions including for people with certain medical conditions. In effect, applications for a medical exemption are rarely approved.
Airlines had already brought in their own face mask rules long before President Biden introduced the federal mandate in January. Had the mandate not been extended for a second time, it’s likely that airlines would have continued enforcing their own rules.
Gary Kelly, the outgoing chief executive of Southwest Airlines had recently expressed hope that fully vaccinated travelers wouldn’t have to wear a face mask on planes and in airports after September 13, although that was in line with advice with the then CDC guidance for fully vaccinated Americans in indoor settings.
Since Kelly made those comments, the CDC has updated its guidance and now advises Americans to wear a mask in indoor settings, whether vaccinated or not, in areas of high transmission.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), had been campaigning for the extension and welcomed the news saying aviation had a responsibility to “end the pandemic, rather than aid the continuation of it”.
“We all look forward to the day masks are no longer required but we’re not there yet. Let’s focus on putting COVID-19 in check together. Get vaxxed, wear a mask, be kind, and come fly with us,” Nelson continued.
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.