CDC Issues Federal Airplane Mask Mandate

CDC Issues Federal Airplane Mask Mandate


The U.S. CDC Has Issued a Federal Mask Mandate for Airplanes and Other Public Transportation, such as trains and buses, effective February 1, 2021.

The mandate requires:

  • All passengers to wear a mask that covers his/her nose and mouth
  • Airline/transport staff to use best efforts to ensure that all passengers wear a mask when boarding, during the duration of the journey, and when disembarking; this includes monitoring and seeking compliance from anyone not wearing a mask and disembarking at the earliest opportunity a person who refuses to comply

The only exceptions to the mask mandate are:

  • A child under 2 years old
  • A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask because of a disability defined by the ADA (42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.)
  • A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations
  • While eating, drinking, or taking medication, for brief periods
  • When necessary to verify one's identity such as during TSA screening or when asked to do so by the gate agent or any law enforcement official
  • While communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, when the the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication
  • If it becomes necessary to don an oxygen mask due to loss of cabin pressure on an airplane


Why a Federal Mask Mandate Matters Even With Airline Mandates

All U.S. airlines have mask mandates, so why is a federal mask mandate needed? A few reasons:

First, a federal mandate carries more weight and potential penalties than an individual airline policy. Airlines do have a potent weapon in the form of banning passengers who refuse to wear a mask, but until now the refusal to wear a mask hasn't carried any federal penalties as it hasn't been a federal violation. As the FAA itself noted on 12/18/20, “failure to wear a face covering is not itself a federal violation.” That has now changed. On 1/29/21, the FAA said it's “committed to ensuring commercial airline passengers comply with President Biden’s face mask mandate throughout their journey from curb-to-curb,” and stated that the agency is coordinating with other federal agencies, airlines, unions and airports to strictly enforce a “zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances on flights or fail to obey flight crew instructions.” Passengers have already been put on notice that unruly passengers could face legal action, with fines up to $35,000 and/or imprisonment.

Second, a federal mandate provides a certain minimum level of consistency across airline policies, although airlines and other transport operators, states and local governments may impose even stricter requirements.

For example, Delta Airlines currently provides an exemption for mask wearing to children under the age of two or “young children who cannot maintain a face covering.” While certainly one could argue that it's more humane to let young children fly without continuously wearing a mask, that is not what the federal mandate provides for. This puts parents and caregivers on notice that they and their children could be removed if they're traveling with a child age 2 or older who is unable to continuously wear a face mask, regardless of the U.S. airline they choose to fly. With the federal mask mandate, families with kids age 2 and older can decide if they still are able to travel by public transportation, or if they'll need to postpone their trip or drive instead.

Third, and this may be wishful thinking, but I'm hoping that by having a federal mask mandate, just as there's a federal mandate to wear a seat belt, U.S. airline crew themselves will start taking masking more seriously. See our post Dear JetBlue Flight Crew: Please Enforce Your Mask Policy.

If you've flown recently, how compliant were fellow passengers with the airline's mask mandate?

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