Southwest Airlines flight attendants call on Biden to drop face mask mandate
The Dallas-based Southwest Airlines flight attendants union is calling on the White House and other aviation regulators to drop face mask mandates that have become a feature of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TWU Local 556 union, which represents that carrier’s 16,000 flight attendants, said in a letter to President Joe Biden and other regulators that “serving on board during these controversial times and upholding the Mask compliance is one of the toughest jobs we’ve ever faced as flight attendants. ”
“We strongly believe that now is the time to give our members and passengers the option to choose whether they prefer to wear a mask in flight,” the letter from the executive board of TWU Local 556 reads. “In the spirit of bringing normality back to our front lines as aviation first responders, we ask that you consider lifting the federal mask mandate for air travel and will act quickly to restore choice to aviation professionals and the flying public.”
The request comes weeks after the Transportation Security Administration announced it would extend the face mask mandate from March 18 to April 18 and that the CDC was working on a set of guidelines to determine when masking on planes and at airports could be abandoned. Passengers can face fines of $500 to $1,000 for a first offense for not wearing a mask and $1,000 to $3,000 for a second offense. Airlines have also banned passengers who refuse to follow mask rules.
But with the receding omicron of COVID-19, a number of state and local governments as well as school districts have reduced public health requirements for face masks in public places and businesses. The CDC earlier this month relaxed rules on face masks across most of the country.
“This is a sensitive issue, and we wanted to make sure we were really responding to our members,” TWU Local 556 President Lyn Montgomery said in an interview. “We did a survey that a large majority of our flight attendants are very tired of wearing masks.”
Montgomery said the union would not release the poll results.
Airplanes have been a bigger arena of debate since the confined space of a commercial jet leaves very little room for social distancing. But airlines have also had to deal with people opting out of government face mask rules that have been in effect since January 2021. The FAA received 4,290 reports of mask-related incidents in 2021, or nearly two-thirds of all incidents involving unruly passengers. Airlines have been enforcing their own mask mandates since spring and summer 2020.
“The number of physical and verbal assaults in our workplace has increased dramatically, many of which are related to mask compliance,” TWU Local 556 wrote in the letter. “Through it all, our members have continued to respond in a professional and responsible manner, with safety and security being our top priority. »
“It is important to note that a large portion of our members have expressed that they would like the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a mask at work.”
Scientists have been cautious about dropping face mask mandates.
Harvard researcher Leonard Marcus, who co-directs the school’s Aviation Public Health Initiative, said masks still reduce transmission of COVID-19 on airplanes.
“If you put that together — so you have a lot of people on a plane, everyone is wearing a mask — you’ve done something, in combination with the ventilation system, that really reduces the likelihood of transmission,” Marcus said. to New Zealand’s Stuff for an article on March 1.
Airline officials have pointed out that their research shows that the risk of spreading COVID-19 on commercial aircraft is low due to air filter systems and the way ventilation systems move air from the roof up. ground.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, to the airline cabin environment,” said Gary Kelly, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines who retired. in February, during a congressional hearing at the end of 2021. “It’s very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor environment.
The flight attendant unions at American Airlines and United Airlines have taken a more nuanced approach.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants representing American Airlines workers said in February that “flight attendants look forward to the day when face coverings are no longer mandatory for air travel; however, our main objective must be to ensure confidence in our global air transport system. But the union has not taken an official position on whether face mask mandates should be extended.