House Transpo Leaders Unveil Air Travel Mask Bill

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (July 30, 2020, 11:00 PM EDT) -- House transportation committee leaders on Thursday introduced a measure that would require passengers to wear masks on flights and in airports, a move they said aims to minimize transmission of COVID-19 and keep passengers, airline and airport employees safe.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation, said the Healthy Flights Act also calls for the development of a national preparedness plan, which would help aviation stakeholders prepare for future infectious disease pandemics and epidemics.

"During the period of any national emergency declared by the president under the National Emergencies Act … with respect to an airborne disease, each air carrier … shall require each passenger of such air carrier to wear a mask or protective face covering while such passenger is on board an aircraft of such air carrier," the bill states.

DeFazio said in a statement Thursday that infections are "spreading like wildfire," yet the Trump administration refuses to enact basic public health protections for passengers and workers.

"This inaction is a massive failure on the part of the Trump administration, so Congress can and must step up on behalf of those on the frontlines in our aviation system," DeFazio said. "The Healthy Flights Act provides clear, consistent rules and guidelines that give flight and cabin crews the authority they need to keep passengers safe, mitigate the spread of this insidious disease, and help our country prepare for future pandemics."

The bill has garnered the support of nearly a dozen major industry groups and unions, like the American Association of Airport Executives, the Airports Council International - North America and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

ACI-NA President and CEO Kevin M. Burke said in the statement that airports have taken every available step to prevent the spread of COVID-19, "and the simple act of wearing a mask or other face covering goes a long way to achieving that goal."

"This bill is designed to ensure the health and safety of passengers and will help restore confidence in the traveling public," Burke said.

Meanwhile, the White House said Thursday it opposed a mask mandate, slamming a provision in a separate U.S. House of Representatives spending bill that would require masks while traveling via plane or train as "overly restrictive." The White House Office of Management and Budget said in the statement that "such decisions should be left to states, local governments, transportation systems and public health leaders," according to The New York Times.

Specifically, the bill clarifies the Federal Aviation Administration's authority to impose health and safety requirements on passenger and cargo air travel during public health emergencies. It also requires passengers to don masks both on board flights and in airports and directs airlines to provide employees with protective equipment.

On top of that, the measure calls for a study on the transmission of infectious diseases in airplane cabins and creates an FAA Center of Excellence on Infectious Disease Response and Prevention in Aviation to advise the FAA administrator.

Larsen said in the statement that keeping the flying public safe from COVID-19 is particularly difficult "because of the lack of coordinated federal leadership."

DeFazio and Larsen were joined by 18 other representatives in co-sponsoring the bill, according to Thursday's statement.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in the statement that masks are only effective if everyone does their part in properly wearing them. The union represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines, per the statement.

"The FAA administrator has the authority and duty to protect passenger health and safety," Nelson said. "Requiring masks does that and clearly communicates expectations to the traveling public, which also reduces the potential for conflict on planes."

President Donald Trump has long opposed masks, repeatedly saying they're not needed and not helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19. But last week, Trump abruptly shifted course and recommended wearing masks while admitting that the pandemic looks like it may worsen.

White House representatives didn't immediately return a request for comment late Thursday.

--Additional reporting by Jeff Overley. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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