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More airlines move to make masks mandatory

Rachel Miner, 15, left, of Emmetsburg, Iowa, sits with Carlotta Haas, 15, a foreign exchange student from Duesseldorf, Germany, who had been living with Miner and her family but was called home, as they waited for her flight Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minneapolis. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP)

Momentum is growing behind the push to require passengers to wear masks when they fly, in hopes of providing an extra layer of protection against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Thursday, American, Delta, Frontier and United announced that starting this month, passengers would be required to wear masks or facial coverings when they fly. The shift comes after JetBlue announced a similar policy Monday.

Crew members also will be required to wear masks, the airlines said.

Amid reports that more than 500 employees, including screeners at the Transportation Security Administration, have been diagnosed with covid-19, union leaders said travelers should be required to wear masks when passing through security checkpoints as well.

"TSA should require that all passengers wear a mask in order to enter the security process," said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, during at virtual forum Thursday on the impact of covid-19 on TSA workers.

At the session, held by members of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Kelley said that at least five TSA workers have died of the virus.

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., pointing to mask requirements in some supermarkets, said people need to change their behavior to protect "front-line warriors" at TSA who are working to keep the nation safe.

"It's a change that has to be drilled down into each individual, that you got to change the way we do business, at least in the short term," he said.

TSA would not say whether it supports a mask requirement. The agency noted in a statement that "several jurisdictions have regulations in place that make it mandatory for individuals to wear masks in public."

All this comes the same week that Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to make face coverings mandatory for commercial travelers.

"As our Nation confronts this devastating public health crisis, it is incumbent on every Federal agency to provide clear, consistent requirements that put the health and well-being of all Americans first," DeFazio said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Accordingly, today I urged FAA Administrator [Steve] Dickson to require masks or other face coverings for all crew members and passengers on U.S. flights."

Even so, the FAA has so far resisted calls to require masks, reiterating that it sees its role as a regulatory agency that oversees safety, not health.

"The FAA has statutory authority and responsibility to promote the safe operation of civil aircraft," the agency said in a statement. "The FAA is not a public health agency, but we are lending our aviation safety expertise to federal public health agencies as they issue health guidance for crew members, including health monitoring, screening protocols and aircraft cleaning."

Scientists know how to stop viruses from circulating on planes. Unfortunately, they are too late for this pandemic

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford added that Dickson welcomed the opportunity to speak with DeFazio about his concerns and that the agency would continue to work with air carriers "to ensure they have processes in place for addressing public health risks for their crews and passengers."

Earlier this week DeFazio and other Democratic and Republican leaders of the Transportation Committee made an appeal to Nicholas Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, a leading industry trade group, to help address a number of issues related to air travel and the pandemic. They strongly urged him to encourage member airlines to develop "clear, enforceable policies" to require passengers to wear masks or face coverings.

Airlines for America declined to say whether it would support such a policy, saying only in a statement: "The safety and well-being of passengers and employees is the top priority of U.S. airlines. U.S. carriers have worked since the early stages of this outbreak to increase communications with passengers and implement travel policies to provide flexibility for customers. U.S. airlines remain committed to making accommodations that are responsive to travelers' needs during this unprecedented time."

According to estimates from employee unions, more than 600 flight attendants have been infected and at least five have died of the coronavirus. Among pilots, there have been at least three deaths and more than 230 infections.

"We're happy to see airlines taking action to require masks or face coverings for passengers, crew and other front line employees," Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. "We continue to call on the federal government - whether it be DOT, FAA, HHS, CDC - to require masks for crew, front line employees and all passengers."

As part of its new policy, American Airlines said it would begin providing masks as well as hand sanitizer and wipes to passengers beginning in early May, with the goal of offering them to passengers on all flights when supplies become available.

The GAO told the government in 2015 to develop a plan to protect the aviatAsion system against an outbreak. It never happened.

In addition to requiring that all passengers wear masks beginning May 8, Frontier Airlines said travelers also will have to fill out a health acknowledgment form before check-in, certifying, among other things, that no one in their household has exhibited covid-19-related symptoms in the past 14 days. Very young children, who are unable to wear a face covering, are exempt from the policy, the airline said.

"We want our passengers to feel comfortable when flying with us by protecting themselves and their fellow travelers as we all navigate the Covid-19 pandemic," said Barry Biffle, Frontier's chief executive officer. "This new measure is aligned with CDC recommendations and those of many municipalities within the U.S. that include wearing a face covering when out in public."

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The Washington Post’s Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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