EDITORIAL: Air Travel Mask Wearing Should Be US Federal Law

Credit: American Airlines/Twitter

A year after the devastating effects of the COVID-19 virus on human life first became apparent, it’s disheartening, to put it mildly, still to be writing an editorial on the imperative of mask wearing during air travel.

FAA in mid-January was compelled to issue a new, stricter compliance and enforcement bulletin aimed at passengers on US airliners who engage in threatening behavior during their flight. The new policy was issued mostly in response to the unruly and intimidating behavior by some passengers onboard flights to and from Washington DC around the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots (see related article).  Some of these passengers targeted lawmakers also traveling on their planes, others became aggressive with cabin crews. On one American Airlines flight from DC to Phoenix, the captain had to resort to warning a rowdy bunch that if they didn’t behave, he would land the aircraft in the middle of Kansas

FAA says it has seen a proliferation of unruly conduct recently, including disruptions relating to mask wearing. The new policy means the agency will send cases of assault, threat, intimidation or interfering with a crewmember direct to law enforcement authorities. That’s a good move.

But there is a caveat to the policy, which states that a passenger’s failure to wear a mask onboard is not a violation of federal law; the violation would occur only if conduct related to non-mask wearing is aggressive.

More than a year into the pandemic, and with US COVID-19 cases still critically high, this loophole needs to be closed. Airlines and their crewmembers have carried the full burden of implementing and enforcing mask wearing for too long. Their only recourse is to ban non-compliant passengers from flying with them. This may work as a broad deterrent, but it also risks the airline being publicly called out by those who don’t believe in the science of mask wearing and is of little help to crewmembers in midair trying to deal with dissenters who, in their non-masked aggression, are infection risks.

Commercial flying, the data show, remains incredibly safe from a hygiene perspective. Modern aircraft cabin air filters, seatbacks and additional cleaning procedures are important parts of air transport’s layered virus protection system. But so is mask wearing, which is a simple “layer” that passengers can take to further protect themselves and others on their flights. Until vaccines are widely distributed and the virus is under control (the US is not even close to either), masks should be worn by all those entering airports and boarding planes. Failure to do so is certainly more dangerous than carrying a container of liquid greater than 3.4 oz and could, worse case, be as lethal as a loaded gun.

FAA’s stronger policy against onboard aggression is a good step. Mask wearing throughout the air travel journey is the necessary next step and should be federal law.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


Absolutely not... the last thing the traveling public needs is another Federal law.

Asserting that failing to wear a mask is "certainly" more dangerous than loaded guns or potentially lethal liquids is absurd; a statement with no factual foundation.

Particularly disturbing is Ms. Walker's attack on free speech, citing that a Federal law would protect airlines from being "called out publicly" by those who disagree with the mask policy.

Furthermore, Ms. Walker is living in a fantasy land of kittens and puppies if she believes any such law would be temporary.

With it's plethora of fees, shrinking legroom, schemes such as "basic economy" and other practices designed to wring cash from hapless passengers, flying in the pre-COVID era was already more of an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Simply banning unruly passengers from future flights is a much simpler,
and less of an assault on Constitutional rights, solution.

Your article is spot on. This should have been done by last June. The new administration should get this done ASAP. Safety is the number one priority.