TSA Expected To Extend Airline Mask Mandate Through January

***Update on 08/17/2021 at 22:59 UTC – TSA has confirmed the extension of the air travel mask mandate through January***

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is expected to extend the requirement for all air travelers to wear a face mask onboard airplanes and while at airports through January 18th. The current order expires in mid-September. The move comes over rising concerns of the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the ongoing surge in cases, which have made an impact on airline bookings and increased close-in cancellations.

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The TSA is expected to extend the federal mask mandate through January. Photo: Getty Images

TSA expected to extend face mask requirement

Sources have told Reuters that the Biden Administration, in conjunction with the TSA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is expected to extend the mask mandate through January 18th. The TSA is expected to release the update publicly soon. Currently, the mandate is set to expire in September.

Airline representatives were also reportedly informed of the matter on a call on Tuesday. The main task of enforcing the mandate falls to flight attendants and pilots onboard the aircraft.

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Passengers have had to wear a face mask when flying since airlines began to mandate them in spring 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Mask mandates have been contentious

Starting from late April 2020, airlines began to mandate face coverings for both travelers and employees. This came after new studies and recommendations from public health agencies that endorsed mask-wearing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In January, the Biden Administration made the private sector mask mandates a federal one. Airlines have complied with the mandate. However, this has not been without its share of troubles. Over the last several months, mask-refusing customers and unruly passenger complaints have soared, and the FAA has pushed for thousands of dollars in fines and penalties against unruly passengers.

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Law enforcement will meet an aircraft on arrival if there are reports of an unruly passenger, some of which stem from those who refuse to wear a face mask. Photo: Getty Images

In July, however, airlines started to change their tune on mask mandates in light of increasing vaccinations. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly stated the following on the carrier’s second-quarter earnings call:

“What we have been consistently advocating is that we follow the CDC guidelines, which is if you are vaccinated, there’s no mask required, and if you are not vaccinated, then you should wear the mask. And unless that changes from the CDC, we wouldn’t advocate from a Southwest perspective, or the A4A for that matter, extending the mask mandate. You’ve got the Delta variant now that is somewhat new information at this point. So I’m sure that is being very carefully thought through and studied.”

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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly was the most forceful on ending the mask mandate in September, though he left open the possibility of the Delta variant upending that plan. Photo: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines CEO, Ed Bastian, added his take on the mandate on the carrier’s second-quarter earnings call:

“If the variants are continuing, I think people are going to be a little more careful about lifting the masks. If international borders are not yet opened, I’m not sure lifting the mask is going to help opening up those borders. So there’s a lot that goes into that, and I think there’s many pros to taking the mask requirement off as there are to keeping it on at the present time.”

CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, added the following when speaking on American’s second-quarter earnings call:

“Whatever they decide, we’ll enforce and we’ll continue to do so. It’s not for us to opine as to whether or not it should be extended or not. That’s their job. It’s a federal mandate, and we will enforce whatever they put in place.”

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Delta and American CEOs did not offer an opinion on the end of the mask mandate but reaffirmed the airlines would enforce the federal mask mandate if extended. Photo: Getty Images

Even among airlines, the mask mandate has been a point of debate. Southwest’s CEO came out more forcefully in favor of lifting the mandate for vaccinated travelers. Still, he left open the possibility of the spread of the Delta variant as a reason it could be a limitation.

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The Delta variant is causing concern

Since case counts started to spike from mid-July, the Delta variant has been blamed as a reason for the ongoing spread of the virus. One of the more concerning recent trends has been the rise of children ending up in the hospital.

However, the studies have shown that unvaccinated people are the ones who are in the hospital and dying from the disease in much higher numbers than vaccinated individuals, leading to a renewed push from the government and even airlines to get people vaccinated. United, Frontier, and Hawaiian have already announced employee vaccination mandates.

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United Airlines was the first carrier to announce vaccination requirements for its employees. Photo: Getty Images

The variant is also making an impact on bookings. Southwest indicated it was seeing demand softness and cancellations from bookings. Frontier Airlines announced the same. Most recently, Spirit Airlines expects to take a sizable revenue hit through the quarter from close-in cancellations and demand softness over the rise of the Delta variant.

With the recent rise in cases and still some unknowns from the Delta variant, the TSA is following the trend that the Biden administration has set and is expected to extend the federal mask mandate through January 18th. Refusing to wear a mask onboard an aircraft may lead to fines and punishments under federal law, including ending up on an airline or federal no-fly list.

What do you make of the likely extension of the federal mask mandate? Let us know in the comments!