Yes, masks are still required on planes and at airports despite new CDC mask guidelines
Flying soon? Don't forget to bring a mask.
Despite updated COVID-19 mask guidance announced Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the lifting of mask mandates across the country, the federal mask mandate covering planes, airports, trains and other public transportation is in effect until at least March 18.
"The mask requirement remains in place and we will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with CDC," Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Robert Langston said in a statement Friday.
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Airlines, unions and consumer advocates pushed the federal government for months to mandate the policy, so flight attendants would have backing when encountering passenger resistance but found no support from President Donald Trump's administration. During the presidential campaign in 2020, Joe Biden promised to institute a transportation mask mandate if elected as one of many ways to combat COVID-19.
The mandate has been extended three times since it went into effect in February 2021.
Will the mask mandate for travel be extended?
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a large union representing flight attendants at airlines including United, Alaska, Hawaiian, Spirit and Frontier, expects it will be extended again.
"The conditions in aviation are the same," the union said in a statement. "Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine. The airplane is a unique, but controlled environment for everyone's safety. The layered approach to safety and security includes masks. Aviation is a world-wide network that harmonizes safety procedures around the world. It’s also critical that we maintain passenger confidence in the safety of air travel."
Do I still need to wear a mask on a plane?
Airlines have not come out with a public stance on whether the mandate should be extended.
But Airlines for America, the industry's trade group, together with other travel industry associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on Saturday, sent a letter to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients requesting that the mask mandate be repealed by March 18 or "provide a clear roadmap to remove the mask mandate without 90 days."
"Given travel's slow economic recovery, and in light of the improved public health metrics in the U.S. and medical advancements to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19, we encourage the administration to immediately remove travel requirements that no longer fit with the current environment and to set clear timelines and metrics for when others will be lifted," the letter said.
The groups are also seeking an end to pre-departure COVID testing for fully vaccinated passengers on international flights to the U.S., and an end to broad "avoid travel" advisories to destinations outside the U.S. that have COVID case rates that are equal to or less than the case rates in America.
In mid-January, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said it was premature to speculate on when passengers would be able to fly without masks.
"Obviously, that's going to be driven by the medical experts and not by the airlines, and we'll follow their guidance," he said on the airline's quarterly earnings conference call.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly drew criticism at a Senate hearing in December 2021 for saying masks don't do much on planes.
"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment," Kelly said. "It is very safe and high-quality compared to any other indoor setting."
He and other executives testified without masks on, and Kelly tested positive for the coronavirus soon after. (Kelly retired as CEO this month.)
Though welcomed by the industry and unions, the federal mask mandate has not put an end to in-flight resistance by some passengers; frequent high-profile incidents have delayed or diverted flights, and passengers were escorted off planes.
There have been 607 unruly passenger incidents in 2022, 397 of which were tied to masks, the Federal Aviation Administration reported this week.
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Fines for not wearing mask on plane
Passengers who refuse to wear masks face fines and other consequences.
Last fall, Biden doubled the fines for travelers who refuse to mask up in airports. The fines are $500 to $1,000 for first offenders and $1,000 to $3,000 for repeat offenders. Children under the age of 2 and those with certain disabilities are exempt.
Airline mask requirement timeline
► April 2020: United, Frontier add mask requirement for flight attendants, and others soon follow.
► May 2020: JetBlue Airways becomes the first U.S. airline to require masks for passengers, a policy quickly matched by other airlines.
►January 2021: President Joe Biden announces federal mask mandate for travel with an initial expiration date of May 11. Airlines, unions and consumer advocates had called for such a move since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic but found no support from President Donald Trump's administration.
►April 2021: Federal mask mandate extended through Sept. 13.
►August 2021: Mandate extended through Jan. 18 because of the delta variant of the coronavirus.
►December 2021: Mandate extended through March 18 because of the omicron variant.
Contributing: Bailey Schulz