U.S. Lawmakers Debut Bill Mandating Mask Use In Airports And Inflight

Delta Air Lines passenger with mask
Credit: Delta Air Lines / Twitter

WASHINGTON—A group of 18 U.S. House Democrats led by the chairman of the Transportation Committee introduced a bill to mandate face coverings on airplanes and in airports, as debate continues over whether the federal government should issue new regulations or voluntary guidelines on masks.

The Healthy Flights Act of 2020, introduced July 30 by Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D-Washington), would make mask wearing mandatory in flight and at airports during any period of national emergency declared by the president under the National Emergencies Act. 

The bill would require airlines to provide masks and personal protective equipment to all customer-facing crewmembers and would also introduce a civil penalty for passengers who disobey a pilot or flight attendant’s instructions to cover their face in the cabin. Airlines have grappled with how to enforce their mask policies in the absence of federal regulations, and most carriers represented by Airlines for America have taken to banning noncompliant passengers from future flights during the pandemic.

“The Healthy Flights Act provides clear, consistent rules and guidelines that give flight and cabin crews the authority they need to keep passengers safe, mitigate the spread of this insidious disease and help our country prepare for future pandemics,” DeFazio said in a statement.

The legislation gives the FAA broad authority to enact “any requirements necessary ... to protect the health and safety of airline workers and passengers,” which would empower the agency to take more forceful steps to protect public health during a future pandemic. Many critics of the FAA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic have said the agency should have gone beyond issuing voluntary guidelines, particularly with regard to a federal mandate on mask wearing.

“The FAA administrator has the authority and duty to protect passenger health and safety,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) president Sara Nelson said in a statement. “Requiring masks does that and clearly communicates expectations to the traveling public, which also reduces the potential for conflict on planes.”

The law would also mandate the creation of a national aviation pandemic preparedness plan, as well as a special department within the FAA to advise the administrator on infectious diseases in air travel.

“Mandating a healthy flying environment to protect the traveling public will help restore public confidence in air travel and allow crewmembers to welcome passengers back aboard our plan,” Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) president Joe DePete said.

The legislation has the backing of 11 national aviation labor unions, including the AFA, ALPA, Allied Pilots Association, Airport Council International-North America and Transport Workers Union of America.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Boston, Ben covers advanced air mobility and is managing editor of Aviation Week Network’s AAM Report.