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Flight attendants caught in middle again amid 'dangerous' debate over masks on planes

·3 min read
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Airlines are pushing the U.S. government to end mask mandates after the TSA extended a mandate requiring face coverings on planes, in airports, and trains until at least April 18.

"It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air filtration system that aircraft do," a group of CEOs from all major airlines stated in a letter to President Biden.

Flight attendants are a bit more circumspect given that mask mandates were crucial to keeping them safe as travelers returned to flying — but mask mandates and the passionate feelings on both sides of the debate about whether everyone should wear masks in public made flight attendants less safe at times.

"Let’s not push a controversy around federal regulations that frontline workers are charged with enforcing," Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson, said in a statement provided to Yahoo Finance (full statement at the end of this post). "It just makes our jobs harder and more dangerous."

The number of incidents involving unruly passengers on planes — most of them involving the enforcement of mask mandates — skyrocketed in 2021. The TSA reported over 3,800 incidents since February 2021 involving masks, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, while 2,700 warning notices were sent and over 900 civil penalties were levied against passengers.

'That puts our employees in a tough position'

Alaska Airlines CFO Shane Tackett, speaking on Yahoo Finance Live (video above), both urged that mask mandates be lifted and acknowledged that the current situation — where mask mandates are being dropped across the country but are still required for travel — puts airline workers in a tough spot.

"With the mandates having rolled off in much of society, it's a hard thing for people to walk into the airport environment and then have to don them again," Tackett said. “That puts our employees in a tough position to have to police those mandates.”

Airlines for America CEO and President Nicholas Calio noted that while the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA hasn't taken an official stance, flight attendants seem to be growing tired of policing the mandates.

"We've seen nothing from one of the Flight Attendants Union," Calio told Yahoo Finance Live on Thursday. "The Southwest flight attendants wrote the administration the other day, asking that the mandate be dropped for all the reasons we've already mentioned— their personal safety, their own mental and physical well-being. ... So running the numbers on it, we think the vast majority of flight attendants and pilots want the mask mandate removed. They're tired of the police enforcement role that they've had to play, and it's not what their job is."

In any case, at least from now until April 18, flight attendants will remain as the de facto primary enforcers of the federal mandate.

A flight attendant hands out chocolates with a greeting card to passengers on an El Al plane from Israel en route to Abu Dhabi, on August 31, 2020. - A US-Israeli delegation including White House advisor Jared Kushner took off on a historic first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi to mark the normalisation of ties between the Jewish state and the UAE. (Photo by NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by NIR ELIAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A flight attendant hands out chocolates with a greeting card to passengers on an El Al plane from Israel en route to Abu Dhabi, on August 31, 2020. (Photo by NIR ELIAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Here is the official full statement from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA's Nelson:

“Two years ago we fought for the right of Flight Attendants to wear masks and for airlines to supply the proper PPE to safely do our jobs.

Masks were central to communicating the controlled environment in the aircraft cabin that gave people confidence to return to flying.

COVID public health policies are beginning to sunset with vaccination, access to PPE, and home testing. Let’s not push a controversy around federal regulations that frontline workers are charged with enforcing. It just makes our jobs harder and more dangerous.

We are working to ensure Flight Attendants are not prohibited from making the choice to utilize safety items such as masks and gloves as these policies start to change in the near future."

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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