The FAA, Never Shy About Regulation, Does Not Require Masks on Flights

The FAA can prohibit flammable liquids and nail clippers, but why can't they regulate this aspect of public safety?
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By Sam Kemmis

I was once on a flight that was delayed several hours because of a missing beverage cart. The flight crew explained that this happened not because the passengers might riot without ginger ale, but because the Federal Aviation Administration required the beverage carts to be stowed before takeoff — which meant the carts needed to be on board in the first place.

The FAA is hardly known for its regulatory restraint, in other words. So why hasn’t this federal agency, which oversees air safety, required face masks for all passengers instead of leaving it to the discretion of airlines and flight crews?

I’ve written extensively about U.S. airlines’ responses to COVID-19 this year, comparing the policies each airline has enacted to ensure passenger safety. Officially, every U.S. airline now requires passengers and crew to wear face coverings throughout the flight. Yet I have heard from many readers who claim that these “official policies” are inconsistently enforced.

One reader shared an eight-page diatribe she wrote to Alaska Airlines  (ALK) - Get Report (which I rated highly for its official policies) after she encountered an apparently egregious series of flights packed with maskless passengers and crew.

This is a serious issue, but it is difficult to track systematically. Short of boarding several flights myself to compare real-life enforcement of mask policies (no thanks), there is no good way to know which airlines are actually safest to fly.

This is an absurd situation for everyone involved, including passengers, airlines and crew. We all want safer planes, yet are counting on the thoughtfulness of other passengers to ensure this safety. That’s like taking a prescription drug and counting solely on the thoughtfulness of the pharmaceutical company to ensure its safety.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but: We need more federal regulation.

It May Not Be Possible

In the opinion of some experts, the FAA may lack the authority to require masks in flight. According to one article, “The FAA, as an aviation safety regulator, does not possess general public health expertise or police powers.”

If disallowing me to stand in line for the airplane bathroom doesn’t qualify as “police powers,” I’m not sure what does — but apparently health safety concerns like pandemics fall through the cracks of the FAA’s regulatory purview. Even if that is true, then which agency does have regulatory authority over health measures on aircraft? And how quickly can it act?

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The sooner these regulations are enacted, the safer air travel will become and the faster the virus can be contained. Requiring masks on aircraft is an easy way to help combat the pandemic in both the short and long term. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently drove this point home. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus,” he said in a news release last month.

And the impact extends far beyond this year. When the next pandemic hits, enforcing disease-containing policies will be a crucial containment step. If the FAA isn’t empowered to combat disease on planes, then it or another federal agency must be granted this authority.

Nudges Won’t Do

Many airlines have taken to Twitter  (TWTR) - Get Report to cheekily coax passengers into complying with face-covering policies.

This. Is. Bonkers.

Imagine the same situation for other aspects of air travel safety, such as carrying flammable liquids on board. Would we rely on Twitter memes to dissuade passengers from bringing gasoline with them? Then, why have we resorted to using them to stop a runaway global pandemic?

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Nudging passengers to obey the rules isn’t enough. We’re all familiar with the power of the words “the FAA requires all passengers to comply …” when droned over the PA during safety briefings. It’s time to make mask-selfishness a federal offense.

No Excuses

The fact that the federal government has failed to combat the virus is hardly earth-shattering news, but that doesn’t mean we should get complacent when holding the administration accountable for air travel safety.

This is a clear case where the federal government needs to step up (by whatever byzantine means it is empowered to act through) and do something. If the virus came to this country by aircraft, our network of domestic flights surely didn’t help curtail the spread. The least federal regulators can do now is require basic safety measures on board to help contain it.

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

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Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.