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Flight-attendant unions urge longer mask edicts

by Tribune News Service | February 23, 2022 at 2:39 a.m.

Flight attendants unions want to extend mask mandate on airplanes

Flight attendants want the federal government to extend face mask requirements on commercial airplanes beyond next month's expiration date, even with pressure growing against mask mandates on planes, airports and elsewhere.

Unions for flight attendants at American Airlines, United Airlines and several regional carriers say it's not the appropriate moment to drop mask rules, even though they are "are looking forward to a time when face coverings are no longer a requirement for air travel."

"While more of the world now has access to life-saving vaccines, we still have a significant portion of the population that are vulnerable, including our youngest passengers," said Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 24,550 employees at Fort Worth-based American Airlines.

The Transportation Security Administration mandate requiring masks to be worn in airplanes, on interstate bus travel and in transportation terminals such as airports expires March 18, about 14 months after the original mandate from the Biden administration went into effect. Many parts of the country are starting to drop mask requirements, including Connecticut and New Jersey, along with many businesses that required face masks to be worn throughout much of the pandemic.

TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House hasn't indicated whether it will extend the airplane masking order beyond next month.

Southwest Airlines has made masks optional at its headquarters campus at Dallas Love Field.

But whether masks should be required in the air on commercial flights is still a contentious issue. Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over masks mandates on airplanes, saying the agency lacks authority to enforce the rule. The TSA also has issued a rule mandating masks in airports.

While covid-19 cases have come down from the omicron variant surge that peaked in January, flight attendants and others argue that masks help protect vulnerable travelers.

"The conditions in aviation are the same," said Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at such airlines as United, Frontier, Spirit and Alaska, as well as regional carriers Envoy, Mesa, Piedmont and others. "Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine."

Garland said masks help maintain passenger confidence in air travel. Despite a rapid return to air travel, passenger numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, especially business and international travel.

"The airplane is a unique but controlled environment for everyone's safety," Garland said. "The layered approach to safety and security includes masks."

The fight to keep masks comes as flight attendants also look to crack down on unruly passengers with a "no-fly" list that could be shared across airlines for travelers who cause problems onboard flights.

"Flight attendants continue to face physical and verbal abuse, and we cannot sit by and allow these offenders to commit these dangerous acts from airline to airline," said APFA president Julie Hedrick in a statement. "This behavior must stop."

Earlier last week, Texas' Ted Cruz was one of eight Republican senators who wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking to block airlines and the government from starting a no-fly list for passengers.

"The TSA was created in the wake of 9/11 to protect Americans from future horrific attacks, not to regulate human behavior onboard flights."

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