When the Transportation Security Administration announced in January that it would require people to wear a mask at airports and on planes, trains, and other forms of public transportation, the announcement included a sunset date: May 11.
With that deadline rapidly approaching and the pandemic still not under control, airline industry leaders are urging the agency to continue enforcing mask rules in the air and on the ground. The TSA’s announcement was tied to an executive order by President Biden and an emergency order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Flight attendants and passengers need the leadership and support of the TSA to maintain and improve compliance with the CDC mask order,” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a letter to the agency’s administrator last week.
The TSA is not saying what it will do.
“The federal mask requirement within the nation’s transportation system is set to expire on May 11,” a TSA spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, said in an e-mail. “There has not been any decision or announcement regarding an extension.”
Representatives from the White House and the CDC did not immediately respond to questions about the mask mandate. The CDC’s emergency order is in effect until further notice; it is not clear what would happen if the TSA did not change its own date.
Airlines started requiring passengers to wear masks nearly a year ago, but they had no federal mandate to back up their rules. Enforcement by federal agencies, Nelson said in her letter, provided relief for flight attendants and “facilitated an effective and consistent standard for airlines across the industry.”
“Collaborative and complementary enforcement actions by the TSA and (Federal Aviation Administration) are essential to establishing and maintaining a strong and clear expectation for behavior onboard,” Nelson wrote in her April 15 letter. “On behalf of our membership, we are asking that you extend the mask mandate through at least September 30, 2021, to ensure the continued safety and security of commercial aviation as the covid-19 pandemic continues to threaten our lives and disrupt our economy.”
The mask requirement was a central issue at a Senate hearing on safety in air travel earlier this week.
“I encourage the administration to be proactive regarding masks on aircraft and I support federal efforts to ensure that passengers wear masks on planes and that crews have tools to enforce those protections,” Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said. “I am concerned that those protections may prematurely end next month. So I’m calling on the administration to extend those policies which have provided clarity for travelers, offered certainty for crews and prevented the spread of disease.”
During the hearing, both Nelson and Nick Calio, president and CEO of the trade group Airlines for America, spoke in favor of extending the mandate.
Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said during the hearing that there was “every reason to believe” the mandate would be extended. But he also asked how long it should stick around.
“Someday the mask requirement needs to end,” he said.
Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said questions about variants and whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus mean travelers should continue to cover their faces when they fly. He said it was still difficult to estimate when masks would no longer be needed.
“For sure when we’re on the plane, when we’re going through the airport buildings, when we’re indoors, let’s keep those masks on,” he said. “We want to make this crisis end as soon as possible.”