Checklist: Mask Mandate in U.S.

Airline passenger
Credit: Inmarsat

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, in collaboration with the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, issued a guidance document for airlines and airports called “Runway to Recovery” in July 2020. Updated in December 2020, the framework document recommended—but did not require—that airlines and airports follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

On Jan. 21, 2021, his second day in office, new U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring that face masks be worn by passengers and employees engaged in public transportation. The presidential directive set in motion implementing rules by the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration, which staffs screening checkpoints at airports.

Associations representing business aviation advise that the federal mask mandate applies to FBOs and Part 135 charter operators, but not to passengers of personal, non-commercial aircraft operated under the FAA’s Part 91 regulation.


TSA Mask Mandate
Credit: Transportation Security Administration

On Jan. 21, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order entitled “Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel.” The directive ordered federal agencies to require that masks be worn at airports and on commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels and intercity buses. It also ordered cabinet secretaries “to take any further appropriate regulatory action” to implement a Jan. 12 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order requiring airline passengers traveling to the U.S. to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

On Jan. 29, the CDC issued an order requiring passengers and crew to wear masks “when traveling on conveyances” and at “transportation hubs.” A conveyance is defined as “an aircraft, train, [rideshare] road vehicle, vessel or other means of transport, including military.” An exception is made for “private conveyances operated solely for personal, non-commercial use.”

The CDC order defines a transportation hub as “any airport, bus terminal, marina, seaport or other port, subway station, terminal (including any fixed facility at which passengers are picked-up or discharged), train station, U.S. port of entry, or other location that provides transportation subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

On Jan. 31, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a Security Directive to U.S. airports to implement the President’s directive and enforce the CDC order. Individuals who violate the Security Directive face fines ranging from $250 for the first offense to $1,500 for repeat offenders.

The TSA started requiring individuals to wear a face mask at airport screening checkpoints and elsewhere on Feb. 2. The requirement remains in effect until May 11, 2021.

What The Mask Mandate Requires

COVID-19 testing airline flight crew
San Francisco International Airport started rapid COVID-19 testing of airline flight crews and airport employees in the summer of 2020. Credit: San Francisco International Airport

Under the Jan. 29 CDC order, the operators of conveyances must require all persons onboard to wear masks when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel. Operators of transportation hubs must require all persons to wear a mask when entering or on the premises of the hub.

Passengers on public conveyances (airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-shares) traveling into, within, or out of the U.S., must follow the order, as well as conveyance operators (crew, drivers, conductors and other workers involved in the operation of conveyances) and operators of transportation hubs (airports, bus or ferry terminals, train or subway stations, seaports, ports of entry) or any other area that provides transportation in the U.S.

According to the TSA Security Directive, airport operators “must make best efforts” to provide individuals with prominent and adequate notice of the mask requirements.

The notice must also inform individuals of the following:

  • Federal law requires wearing a mask at all times in and on the airport and failure to comply may result in removal and denial of re-entry.
  • Refusing to wear a mask in or on the airport is a violation of federal law; individuals may be subject to penalties under federal law.

The airport operator must require that individuals in or on the airport wear a mask.

  • If individuals are not wearing masks, ask them to put a mask on.
  • If individuals refuse to wear a mask in or on the airport, escort them from the airport.

The airport operator must ensure direct employees, authorized representatives, tenants and vendors wear a mask at all times in or on the airport.

Exceptions To Mask Requirement

The requirement to wear a mask does not apply under the following circumstances:

  • For children under the age of 2 years
  • When eating, drinking, or taking medications, for brief periods
  • When communicating with a person who is hearing impaired
  • Instances when wearing oxygen masks are needed due to loss of cabin pressure or other event affecting aircraft ventilation
  • Travelers who are unconscious (for reasons other than sleeping), incapacitated, unable to be awakened, or otherwise unable to move without assistance
  • Verifying a passenger’s identity such as through TSA screening or by a ticket or gate agent
  • A person with a disability who cannot safely wear a mask
  • A person for whom wearing a mask would pose a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by relevant federal regulations or workplace safety guidelines

What Industry Associations Say

Pfizer started shipping the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with German firm BioNTech in December 2020. Credit: Pfizer 

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the National Air Transportation Association have interpreted the mandate to apply to aviation facilities such as airports, FBOs and commercial aircraft operations, including Part 135 charter operations. The NBAA specifies that private conveyances for personal, non-commercial use are exempt from the mandate, meaning that passengers of private Part 91 operations are not required to comply.

“This CDC order brings the force of a government mandate to business practices already in place around much of the country,” said Brian Koester, NBAA director of flight operations and regulations. “Aircraft operators and FBO managers should review the order with their personnel to ensure compliance. Having a formal mandate from the federal government should assist operators and FBOs in ensuring compliance with appropriate mask practices.”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) said its Pilot Information Center has fielded questions from members about the applicability of the mask mandate in contexts such as airport hangars, and on the flightdeck. “FAA officials have confirmed that required crewmembers are exempt from mandatory mask-wearing on the flightdeck when in their duty status by virtue of the ‘workplace safety guidelines’ exemption in the CDC order,” the association advised.

“AOPA is working with the FAA and other involved agencies to clarify issues including applicability and enforcement, seeking to avoid unintentional noncompliance or negative outcomes that could result if current or future federal orders curtail general aviation operations,” the association added. “GA pilots have delivered thousands of pounds of protective equipment, among many contributions to the fight against the ongoing pandemic. Preserving these ongoing public benefits is a top AOPA priority in ongoing dialogue with federal agencies.”

Progress Toward Vaccine Distribution

Gloved hand holding vial
Janssen Biotech is seeking emergency use authorization of its one-shot vaccine candidate. Credit: Johnson & Johnson 

Two COVID-19 vaccines were approved for use in the U.S. as of February. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the first emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 11, 2020. The FDA issued an EUA for the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine consists of two shots, given three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine consists of two shots, give 28 days apart.

Janssen Biotech, the pharmaceutical arm of Johnson & Johnson, announced on Feb. 4, 2021, that it had applied to the FDA for EUA of its single-shot Janssen vaccine candidate, following completion of a Phase 3 clinical trial. An FDA advisory committee will meet to discuss the application on Feb. 26.

As of Feb. 8 2021, 31.5 million people in the U.S. had received one or more doses of a vaccine; 9.1 million had received two doses, according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker,

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.