In virtually every state, indoor spaces open to the general public have been subject to distancing mandates during the pandemic, and often guidelines recommending or requiring face masks as well. But as air passengers slowly return to flying, many are subject to no distancing rules at all amid a hodgepodge of airline policies. The Trump administration, having consistently ducked responsibility for grappling with the pandemic on the ground, is doing the same in the skies.

The prohibition on smoking aboard commercial aircraft has been enforced for decades by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the FAA somehow thinks covid-19, which can sicken and kill much more quickly and efficiently than tobacco smoke, is not its problem, and should be under the exclusive purview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, for its part, has been clear — face masks and distancing are strongly advised when people are indoors. Still, the FAA refuses to consider drafting regulations to address the coronavirus threat.

In the absence of any federal rules, airlines are left to their own devices, and are free to prioritize revenue over passenger safety. Thus, American Airlines recently announced it would resume selling middle seats on its flights; United, Spirit, Sun Country and Allegiant are doing the same. Passengers on some flights will be seated shoulder-to-shoulder — so much for distancing aboard those airlines’ planes. And many will find themselves right next to someone wearing no mask.

In theory, most American carriers have required that passengers cover their faces since April. In practice, enforcement is spotty, endangering passengers and crew alike. Pilots and flight attendants are worried and upset — who can blame them? — but can do little to enforce the policy on their own.

It may be impracticable for flight attendants to confront passengers who refuse to wear masks, and airlines have warned them not to do so. But they could hand out cards with simple statements of the airline’s policy — including a warning that passengers who do not comply will be banned for a considerable time, or indefinitely, from future flights with that carrier.

Airlines should also require that passengers be subject to temperature checks before boarding, a process that takes just a second or two for each person. Until now, only Frontier Airlines has enforced such a mandate. Why?

Airplanes may have better air purification and circulation systems than many or most buildings, and there is no conclusive evidence that the coronavirus has been transmitted to great numbers of passengers during flights. Still, the peril increases as flights fill up and the pandemic spreads to more countries and regions.

More than a dozen congressional Democrats have pressed Vice President Pence, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other administration officials to formulate a blueprint for enhancing safety measures in air travel. The administration on Thursday responded by releasing new safety guidance, but in the form of recommendations, not regulations — a toothless move that still leaves airlines to devise a jumble of rules, putting passengers and employees at risk.

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