U.S. government officials monitoring the airways say they won’t tolerate passengers who refuse to don masks as airline travel surges ahead of the summer season.
A recent spike in unruly passenger reports, many of them involving people refusing to cover their faces, prompted Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday to issue a stern warning to travelers.
“Let me be clear in underscoring something,” Mayorkas said at a press conference at Washington Reagan National Airport in Virginia. “It is a federal mandate that one must wear a mask in an airport, in the modes of public transportation, on the airplane itself — and we will not tolerate behavior that violates the law.”
Mayorkas didn’t specify how passengers would be punished, but both the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration have the authority to fine passengers who violate the law. In extreme cases, such as assaulting flight crews, people can face federal criminal charges.
In the past two weeks, the FAA has proposed fines against nine passengers who allegedly interfered with flight attendants, including several in which flight crews were physically assaulted.
Passenger counts still lag behind pre-pandemic times, but have risen dramatically this year. Since late January, the low point for air travel this year, airlines have added almost 1 million passengers a day on average, or an increase of about 150%.
For the past week, about 1.6 million people a day passed through airport security checks, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That was about 68% of the same period in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
Despite fewer passengers, federal agencies have received thousands of complaints about unruly behavior this year.
Out of 2,500 such reports, the vast majority — 1,900 — involved allegations that people had violated the mask requirement, the Federal Aviation Administration said on Monday.
The FAA said it had taken enforcement actions in 30 cases and had found potential violations in 395 cases.