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Airline CEOs call for end to federal mask mandate in letter to Biden

The executives say the mask requirement should not be extended beyond April 18, when it is set to expire

An American Eagle aircraft is seen taking off behind an employee at Reagan National Airport in Arlington on March 19. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP)
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Arguing that the nation is in a different place than earlier in the pandemic and “well-protected” against severe disease caused by the coronavirus, U.S. airline executives Wednesday called on President Biden to end pandemic-related travel policies, including the federal mask mandate.

“Much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context,” executives from 10 air carriers wrote in the letter to Biden. “Now is the time for the Administration to sunset federal transportation travel restrictions — including the international predeparture testing requirement and the federal mask mandate — that are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment.”

In making their case, executives cited the “persistent and steady decline” of hospitalizations and death rates related to the coronavirus. In the past week, the number of U.S. cases has dropped 16 percent, the number of hospitalizations fell 17 percent and the number of deaths was down 19 percent, according to tracking by The Washington Post. Their request comes as health officials are watching the BA. 2 variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday accounted for about 35 percent of new infections nationally, up from 22 percent a week earlier.

The Biden administration recently extended the federal mask mandate for transportation until April 18. The requirement that people wear masks when flying on airplanes, riding buses and ferries, and in other public transportation settings had been set to expire this month.

Mask mandate extended for air travel and public transit

The extension came as many states had rolled back rules that people wear masks indoors and after the CDC revised its rules on mask-wearing.

The letter from airline executives noted the contradictions in requiring masks in transportation settings, but not in other places.

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air filtration system that aircraft do,” the letter said.

Even groups that previously supported the mandate, including the American Public Transportation Association, has said it is time to set the requirement aside.

The letter also said a policy that requires travelers to the United States to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding their flight had “outlived its utility.” The requirement was put into place in early December as part of an effort slow the introduction of the omicron variant and other variants into the country.

The industry generally supported pre-departure testing at the time it began, but argued in the letter that continuing such a requirement — when the European Union, United Kingdom and Canada have dropped theirs — puts the U.S. travel and tourism industry at a disadvantage.

The letter also noted the toll that policies, particularly the mask mandate, has taken on front-line employees charged with enforcing the requirement.

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration reported it had received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior, more than 70 percent of which were mask-related. Similarly, the Transportation Security Administration, which is charged with enforcing the policy at security checkpoints and in other transportation settings, reported it had investigated 3,800 mask-related incidents.

Unruly passengers are straining the system for keeping passengers safe in the sky

“It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing both the mask and predeparture testing requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now,” they wrote. “This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers. This in turn takes a toll on their own well-being.”

The letter was signed by executives at Alaska Air, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, FedEx Express, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and UPS Airlines.