The Southwest Airlines flight attendants union has written to the Biden administration formally asking for the federal face mask mandate to be abandoned. The union cited the dramatic surge in violent flight attendant assaults and unruly passenger incidents as one of the reasons flight attendants no longer want compulsory inflight masking.
The TWU 556 union sent the letter to President Joe Biden, as well as Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the serving FAA administrator Steve Dickson. The letter also landed on the desk of TSA administrator David Pekosk which is the government agency responsible for enforcing the mandate on behalf of the CDC.
Southwest’s flight attendants are believed to be the first to have formally and publicly supported the lifting of the face mask mandate, although even the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) has started to take a neutral stance on the matter after fiercely supporting the mandate in the past.
TWU 556 says in its letter that it is now possible to lift the mandate because of the decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations.
“The drastic decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases warrants re-evaluating the mandate’s extension through April 18, 2022. Based on data received from local and national health authorities, many state and local governments, including public schools, are already rescinding their mandates.”
The union says that despite violent assaults on its members they had continued to enforce the mandate despite not always agreeing with it.
“The number of physical and verbal assaults in our workplace has increased dramatically, many of which are related to mask compliance,.”
“Through it all, our members have continued to respond professionally and responsibly with safety and security as our main priority. It is important to note that a large portion of our membership has expressed that they would like the freedom to choose whether to wear a mask at work,” the letter read.
The federal face mask mandate came into force on February 2, 2021, and has been extended several times. It was recently extended by a further month and is not expected to expire on April 18.
The mandate could, however, be extended yet again if a surge in the highly-transmissible BA.2 Omicron sub-variant leads to a rise in hospitalisations and deaths.
Former Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly told a Senate committee last December that face masks “don’t add much” to passenger safety. The comments were seen as a request for the mandate to be lifted.
The face mask mandate has been a highly contentious issue at Southwest where the flight attendant union recently criticised the airline’s pilots for flouting masking rules. In one high-profile incident, a Southwest pilot allegedly assaulted a flight attendant in a dispute over face masks during a layover.
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.