President Joe Biden signed an executive order Thursday mandating face masks for passengers during interstate airplane, train and bus travel and in airports, hoping to strengthen airline rules already in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among passengers.
The mask mandate was among a slew of executive actions by the new administration, which also included a testing and quarantine requirement for individuals flying into the United States from other countries.
The orders give broad authority to regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation, to enforce the actions. But the orders don’t specify penalties or details about the travel restrictions. The agencies are directed to come up with plans and report back in the coming days.
Airlines have had rules in place since May but have struggled with passengers taking masks off once they’re on board. Ensuing conflicts with flight crews or other passengers have become increasingly political.
“While we increase vaccinations, we are going to take steps necessary now to slow the spread of the disease as well,” Biden said before signing the order. “The mask has become a partisan issue, unfortunately, but it’s a patriotic act.”
Delta Air Lines has already placed temporary bans on more than 600 passengers, and Alaska Airlines has banned more than 300. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American have banned passengers but have declined to say how many.
Airline employee unions had been pushing since early in the pandemic for a federal order to reenforce company face mask mandates, but lately flight attendant and pilot groups say that they have encountered a growing number of confrontational passengers.
“As passengers travel on different airlines and through various airports, they deserve to have clear expectations on what the rules are,” said a statement from Julie Hedrik, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines flight attendants.
Last week, an American Airlines passenger flying from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte reportedly was escorted off a flight after refusing to wear a face mask and yelling about tyranny, according to the Charlotte NBC-TV affiliate WCNC.
Cries for federal help have been growing since outbursts aboard planes erupted after Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to disrupt certification of Biden’s November election victory.
On Jan. 13, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said he would order stricter enforcement of rules against unruly passengers, though the agency had been reluctant to step in with face mask and social distancing mandates.
“Recently, we’ve seen a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior,” Dickson said in a video statement. “These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol.”
The FAA made the order under existing rules against disrupting an airline flight and interfering with crew members, a violation that could include jail time and a fine of up to $35,000.
Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said last week that “federal mandates make a difference.”
“If you have to make it based on company policy, it doesn’t carry the same weight,” he said.
For the travel restrictions, the executive orders require proof of a negative coronavirus test before people can fly to the United States. And they refer to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended “periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after a flight to the United States from a foreign country.” Language on the CDC’s website says people should isolate for 14 days after potential exposure to COVID-19.