The union for flight attendants at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is asking the White House and other aviation regulators to drop face mask mandates that have become a hallmark of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TWU Local 556 union that represents that carrier’s 16,000 flight attendants said in a letter to President Joe Biden and other regulators that “Serving onboard during these contentious times and enforcing mask compliance is one of the most difficult jobs we have ever faced as flight attendants.
“We strongly believe it is now time to give our members and passengers the opportunity to choose if they prefer to wear a mask while flying,” the letter from TWU Local 556’s executive board said. “In the spirit of bringing normalcy back to our front lines as aviation’s first responders, we ask that you consider lifting the federal mask mandate for airline travel and will move expeditiously to restore choice to aviation professionals and the flying public.”
The request comes weeks after the TSA said that it would extend the face mask mandate from March 18 to April 18 and that the CDC was working on a set of guidelines to determine when masking on airplanes and in airports could be dropped. Passengers can face fines of $500 to $1,000 for a first offense for not wearing masks and $1,000 to $3,000 for a second offense. Airlines have also been banning passengers who refuse to follow mask rules.
But with the omicron surge of COVID-19 receding, a number of state and local governments along with school districts have been reducing public health requirements for face masks in public places and businesses. The CDC earlier this month eased face mask rules in most of the country.
Airplanes have been a greater arena for debate, since the confined space of a commercial jet gives very little room for social distancing. But airlines have also had to deal with people who decide they will no longer abide by the government rules on face masks that have been in place since January 2021. The FAA received 4,290 reports of mask-related incidents in 2021, which was nearly two-thirds of all unruly passenger incidents. Airlines have enforced their own mask mandates since the spring and summer of 2020.
“The number of physical and verbal assaults in our workplace has increased dramatically, many of which are related to mask compliance,” TWU Local 556 wrote in the letter. ” Through it all, our members have continued to respond professionally and responsibly with safety and security as our main priority.”
“It is important to note that a large portion of our membership has expressed that they would like the freedom to choose whether to wear a mask at work.”
Scientists have been cautious about dropping face mask mandates.
Harvard researcher Leonard Marcus, who co-leads the school’s Aviation Public Health Initiative, said masks still reduce the transmission of COVID-19 on airplanes.
“If you put that together — so you’ve got a lot of people on an airplane, everybody’s wearing a mask — you’ve done something, in combination with the ventilation system, that really reduces the likelihood of transmission,” Marcus told New Zealand’s Stuff for an article on March 1.
Airline officials have stressed their research that shows the risk for COVID-19 spread in commercial airplanes is low because of air filter systems and the way the ventilation systems move air from the roof to the floor.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Gary Kelly, the former Southwest Airlines CEO who retired in February, said during a Congressional hearing in late 2021. “It is very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”
Unions for flight attendants at American Airlines and United Airlines have taken a more nuanced approach.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants representing American Airlines workers said in February that “Flight attendants are looking forward to the day when face coverings are no longer a requirement for air travel; however our primary focus must be to ensure confidence in our global air transportation system.” But the union has not taken an official stance on whether face mask mandates should be extended.
Story by Kyle Arnold, The Dallas Morning News.