Department Of Transportation Announces It Won’t Mandate Masks For Air Travel

In August the group ‘Flyers Rights’ petitioned the Department of Transportation to require masks, arguing that they’ve “unreasonably and unlawfully ceded authority” to airlines and airports to determine the best approach to safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

DOT has responded, declining to mandate masks. DOT believes that since masks are already nearly universally required for air travel “no more regulations [are] necessary.”

Beginning at the bottom pf page 1930 of the current House HEROES Act (as well as in the original version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives) there’s language requiring airports and airlines to adopt mask requirements for passengers, crew and other employees. That’s because current law does not specifically support a federal mask mandate.

At most the DOT Secretary could claim their over 40 year old mandate to provide for ‘safe and efficient’ air travel lets them regulate pretty much anything and everything under the rubric of safety. However it’s hard to make that claim when air travel is already made ‘safe and efficient’ by the practices put in place by airports and airlines. Masks are already required by every major U.S. airline and by airports serving most passengers.

Indeed airline mandates are better than federal mandates.

  1. A federal mandate would be weaker. A federal mandate would involve lobbying from interest groups and likely water down the mask mandate. Would the strongest mandates even survive? If you think that there shouldn’t be medical exemptions to masks, you shouldn’t favor a federal mandate – be happy that American, United, and Southwest all have this policy already.

  2. A federal mandate wouldn’t allow airlines to accommodate passengers differently. It would likely mean every airline has the same policy (even though each airline would submit policies for approval). Right now if your 2 year old won’t keep a mask on or if you need a medical exemption you have Delta as an option – while Southwest, JetBlue, American and United will all kick two year olds off their planes if the toddler refuses to keep their mask on.

Federal rules are likely to persist longer than necessary, and turning airline customer service problems over to law enforcement never goes well. Airlines have found an approach that works most of the time, and a federal mask rule won’t work better than what we have now.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What’s a shame is that, scientifically, it’s almost certain masks are useless on airplanes. But there’s no way to definitively prove this unless we could find a country with USA-levels of Covid that has many airline flights and no masks. In America, since “nobody” is currently getting Covid by flying, there is zero incentive to change policies. But maybe we could use our own first class cabins as a test. From my experience, a good percentage of first class passengers do not wear their masks for the majority of the flight. They’re drinking (aka “nursing”) a beverage for an hour or so, usually putting their mask on only final descent. Some may think these folks are being jerks, and that may be true, but my bet is they’re not getting Covid either. In the meantime, we will continue to have “mask theater” on airplanes for many more months.

  2. In #AlternativeFacts land, it’s almost like like there wasn’t a flight this week (let’s call it callsign AF1) where transmission likely happened on board due to the passengers openly not wearing masks

  3. “…it’s almost certain masks are useless on airplanes”

    Where do your readers get this stuff from?

    This is why the mandate is important, Gary – because almost everyone I know is too frightened to get on a plane because they don’t trust that any rules will be followed. The mandate may not change THAT, but it does suggest that – unlike one candidate’s family at a recent debate – there are no exceptions based on who you think you are.

    Until there is clarity, loud and clear from the government, we’re going to continue to get the hoax/useless/freedom arguments about mask wearing.

  4. Further abdication of the government’s primary function, protecting it’s citizenry, to the whims and inconsistencies of private enterprise.

  5. The current DOT administration is a joke, Wise people will take over 1/21/2021. Make sure you have masks handy.

  6. Even if airlines weren’t enforcing mandates I have a hard time believing we would see a federal mandate, but I agree with your analysis here. The current administration doesn’t believe the virus is a serious problem. Meanwhile most the people in high levels of government have no idea what the president’s real condition from COVID is and his doctor is outright lying during press conferences.

  7. @sunviking82 You may be right about a wise administration in January. However, Biden has retracted his statements about issuing a national mask mandate because he believes it would be unconstitutional.

  8. @Ron — Ignorant? There is not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper that has shown ANY benefit of healthy people wearing masks for respiratory diseases. That’s why, early in this crisis, all the “heath experts” said DON’T wear masks! Because there’s no science supporting it. Indeed, we keep seeing no correlation between mask wearing edicts and infection rates. None. Anywhere in the world. But masks make you FEEL protected. I know they make me feel protected, and I’ve studied the science. But it’s all emotional. It has no basis in reality. As humans, we have a need to feel in control, that we can do something to protect ourselves. That’s masks. And many politicians love to issue orders and also feel like they’re doing something. But it’s all phony. I really wish it wasn’t, but if you actually believe in science, you can’t believe that masks are effective against Covid.

  9. Yeah masks diont work, the sun doesnt rise in the east and Q is going to invade Walter Reed and rescue Donald Dump from the Illuminati /s

  10. You guys can argue all you want about the degree to which masks are effective. As far as I’m concerned, they make enough of a difference that I won’t be around people who don’t wear them.

  11. For the people expressing an opinion against wearing masks please read on.

    Wearing masks help reduce the spread of COVID among the general population. While these masks (particularly medical grade ones) will offer some limited protection for the person wearing them, the main objective is to protect others around you. Masks have been shown to reduce the amount and velocity of microscopic water droplets (carrying viral particles) exhaled while breathing, talking or coughing, limiting the distance they spread around you. However the only way mask wearing will help decrease the spread of COVID is when everyone wears one. The N95 mask–to a lesser extent the KN95–can provide personal protection from the virus regardless of mask wearing compliance of others, but even those are not 100% effective either.

    COVID is a HIGHLY contagious virus that has since mutated into more contagious variants during the course of this pandemic. We know that people that get infected with this virus are capable of transmitting it to others a few days before they develop symptoms, therefore a person that looks (and feels) healthy is capable of unknowingly infecting others around. That is why universal masking is important in reducing the spread. Is universal masking 100% effective in achieving viral containment, absolutely not, but it helps if everyone wears one correctly (that is covering both mouth AND nose and keep it on particularly when talking).

    I couldn’t care less about your political leaning in this highly polarized society we live on, this is a public health issue plain and simple. And please understand this virus will not discriminate; you are as likely to get it regardless of your race, gender, social/financial status, political affiliation or level of approval or not for the current POTUS/CDC/WHO performance/policies during this pandemic.

    For those who love to attack the person rather than the argument, let me tell you something about myself. I am a critical care physician closely working with COVID infected patients with respiratory failure since the beginning of the year. I’ve seen a great number of patients/families suffer during this pandemic, a number of them tragically dying. Many of those that recover continue to suffer from a variety of physical symptoms for many weeks even months after.

    I’m as tired of COVID as the rest of you; I would like to freely enjoy travel and social activities with family and friends once again without the COVID threat constantly hanging over my head. Government won’t contain this pandemic by itself, regardless of the party in power or occupant of the White House. Politicians of all stripes and affiliations will continue doing what they’ve always done play politics. They’ll use this and any other crisis to consolidate and acquire more power for themselves and their political party; we are just insignificant pawns used to achieve their objective. We need to set our many differences aside and work together to achieve containment. Please wear a mask in public (and eye protection if possible), wash your hands frequently, avoid large gatherings when possible and keep you and your family safe.

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