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.
- 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.
- 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.