The largest union representing U.S. flight attendants expects a federal order mandating face masks for air passengers and other travelers will be extended again, even as a growing number of states and businesses lift restrictions.
The requirement is set to expire March 18 after being extended three times since it first was imposed in February 2021 as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19. Masks have been a political lightning rod and contributed to a surge in unruly airline passenger incidents over the past 12 months, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Of 5,981 onboard disputes last year, 72% were related to masks, FAA statistics show.
“We have every expectation that the mask mandate will be extended for the near term,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in an emailed statement. “The conditions in aviation are the same. Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine.”
As infections decline, some states and businesses are opting to drop indoor mask requirements. California, New Jersey, Nevada and Illinois are among states ending such mandates, along with businesses including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Walt Disney Co. is also ditching a face-covering requirement for fully vaccinated guests at its U.S. theme parks.
It’s unclear when a decision about the federal mask requirement will be announced. The prior extensions were announced a few weeks ahead of the expiration date. The current deadline of March 18 falls during spring break for many schools and universities across the U.S., and a change in policy then could cause confusion or disruption during the historically busy travel period.
“It’s also critical that we maintain passenger confidence in the safety of air travel,” according to AFA, which represents about 50,000 flight attendants from 17 carriers, including United Airlines Holdings Inc.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 22,000 American Airlines Group Inc. employees, said it doesn’t oppose an extension of the mask rule, but is “looking forward to the day that it is no longer needed.” Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendants are focused on safe working environments amid growing onboard aggression “with and without mask mandates,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union local 556.
The Air Line Pilots Association and the Allied Pilots Association previously have supported extensions of the mask requirement, but they didn’t respond to requests for comment on the pending expiration. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association also didn’t respond.