As more Americans receive a COVID-19 vaccine and begin to return to a pre‐pandemic normal, the TSA has been under fire from politicians and industry groups to extend a mask requirement that was scheduled to expire on May 11. The pressure clearly worked, as the agency announced today that the mask requirement will be extended until at least September 13. While evidence shows that mask wearing reduces the risk of virus transmission – particularly in indoor areas – it is unclear why the TSA should be in charge of mandating mask‐wearing for airline travelers.
Every major airline requires passengers to wear a face mask on the aircraft. As private companies, it is well within their rights to establish the terms of their service, and the expiration of the TSA mask requirement would not prevent airlines from continuing to require masks.
The main argument from business and labor organizations for extending the TSA mask requirement is that it reduces the burden on flight attendants and other airline employees by allowing them to cite federal law when asking uncooperative customers to wear masks. Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants‐CWA, presented this argument in Congressional testimony last week, saying, “Flight attendants cannot be left to enforce public health policies without the backing of federal enforcement.”
This argument would appear to suggest that, absent the TSA mask requirement, airlines and their employees would have no support from federal law when asking passengers to wear masks. But this is false. On January 29, the CDC issued a separate order, with no expiration date, stating that:
A person must wear a mask while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States. A person must also wear a mask at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States.
So with or without the TSA requirement, federal law still requires that travelers wear masks.
But is any federal mandate necessary? No. Airlines can threaten to kick passengers off (not yet departed) flights, or ban them from future travel on that airline, in response to non‐compliance. These enforcements mechanisms are almost certainly sufficient without a federal mandate.
This is not the first time in U.S. history that airlines have enforced unpopular rules. Although smoking was banned on short domestic flights in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until 2000 that U.S. Department of Transportation banned smoking on all flights – domestic and international. Major airlines, however, including Northwest and Delta, prohibited smoking before the federal ban. While this presumably upset some passengers, these private bans were the prerogative of the airlines. Mask mandates are no different.
It is possible that as vaccination rates increase and the country returns to normal, masks will remain a cultural flashpoint. As with “vaccine passports,” some will support mask requirements while others will oppose them. Allowing private businesses and individuals to determine their preferences and actions is the right approach, not unnecessary regulation.